News and Opinions  –  2020

Animal welfare and antibiotic resistance in food animals

Share the article


One of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, that has devastated lives and economies throughout the world, is greater public awareness of the link between human interaction with animals and the transmission of dangerous new pathogens. While the emergence of a virus like COVID-19 is a relatively rare event, on a more routine basis the extensive use of antibiotics in farming of food animals produces antibiotic resistant bacteria that may lead to therapy failure with a negative effect on animal health and welfare.

Young pigs in free range. Photo: Shutterstock.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, is believed to have originated in wildlife, from where the virus managed to break the species barrier into human beings[1]. As  a matter of fact, almost 75% of the emerging pathogens worldwide are zoonotic in origin[2].

While the emergence of a virus like SARS-CoV-2 is a relatively rare event, on a more routine basis the extensive use of antibiotics in farming of food animals produces antibiotic resistant bacteria that may lead to therapy failure with a negative effect on animal health and welfare. These bacteria have the potential to spread to humans and render a wide range of infections among them difficult to treat.

World Animal Protection Report

A new report titled “Fuelling the Pandemic Crisis: Factory farming and the rise of superbugs”, makes a compelling case for drastic reductions in antibiotic use in the food-animal production industry, primarily poultry, swine, cattle and aquaculture, in order to help limit the spread of antibiotic resistance globally.

“If the pandemic is the flash flood that has taken us by surprise, the superbug crisis is the only too predictable slow rising tide”,

says the report, brought out by World Animal Protection, an animal welfare group.

Report argues against factory farming

The report argues in particular against intensive or “factory farming”, which it points out is bad from both point of view of spread of antibiotic resistance as well as the cruelty to animals involved. It cites data from a range of recent studies that establish the extent and nature of the problem.

131,000 tonnes of antibiotics used in farming annually

For example some 131,000 tonnes of antibiotics are used annually in farming, three quarters of all those produced in the world[3]. This is despite the fact that scientific research shows how antibiotic overuse on factory farms leads to antibiotic resistance, that may spread to workers, the environment and into the food chain.

The broad purposes for which antimicrobials are used in food-animal production are:

  • Therapeutic use i.e. treatment of disease
  • Non-therapeutic use including for prevention of disease, i.e. prophylaxis and metaphylaxis and
  • Growth promotion’ among livestock

Antibiotic use for growth promotion is a major concern

Non-therapeutic use, particularly for growth promotion or for prophylaxis, has generated significant concern due to increasing evidence of its contribution to antibiotic resistance.

From the standpoint of antibiotic resistance, the problem is that many classes of antimicrobials that are used for humans are also being used in food-animals. For every kilogram of fluoroquinolone antibiotics used on meat chickens in the USA, it has been estimated that the cost for human society is US$1500, in terms of extra expenditure on treating resistant bacterial infections[4].

Report useful for policy makers

Antimicrobial Resistance in the Food Chain infographic from WHO.

Overall, the World Animal Protection report is well compiled and presented and is likely to be very useful for policy makers to understand the issues involved. Given the organisation’s mandate to promote animal welfare,  it is not surprising that the report links factory farming practices and antibiotic resistance to concerns regarding cruelty to farm animals, adding a unique ethical dimension to the entire debate.

Animal welfare and antibiotic use

According to the World Animal Protection report,

“factory farms squash large numbers of genetically uniform animals into stressful, barren environments which have no access to outdoors or natural light. Animals are often caged with no room to turn around or extend their limbs, heads or wings.”

The report says that antibiotics are used across groups to prevent these stressed animals getting sick and only help prop up a system of suffering of animals for food production.

Adopting to high welfare farming systems will help decrease antibiotic use

The report points out that a lot of antibiotic use can be avoided by adopting high welfare farming systems, where animals are under less stress, develop improved immunity and become resilient to disease. It cites the example of Sweden where regulations introduced to ensure animal health and welfare have resulted in low antibiotic use compared to other countries in Europe. Sweden has one of the strictest animal welfare legislations in the world, but optimal environment and management routines have enabled farmers to reach high productivity with limited use of antibiotics[5].

Another way to reduce antibiotic use  in farming according to the report is to reduce overall production of animal protein itself. It calls for an increase in the proportion of plant-based protein options in order to reduce global meat production  and consumption by 50 percent by 2040.

Per capita consumption of meat (kg per year), WHO. (accessed on 11 November 2020)

An OECD study[6] attributes one-third of the estimated global increase in antimicrobial consumption by 2030 to the shift towards intensive farming systems. The remaining two-thirds would be a consequence of the larger number of food-animals in production. Those in industrialized countries already consume three times more meat than those in developing countries, and from the late 1990s to 2030, increases in the level of meat consumption are projected in industrialized countries to grow from 88 to 100 kg per person and in developing countries from 25.5 to 37 kg.[7]

Balance between animal welfare and need for affordable food

However, in terms of policy issues, the World Animal Protection report does not address the issue of balancing the needs of animal welfare with the need for affordable food. From a low- and middle income countries perspective, ensuring food security in the face of rapid population growth is an important cornerstone of national planning. The proportion of household income spent on food in low- and middle income countries is much more than in high income countries and any increase in this expenditure can have a cascading effect on several other domains[8].

Again, while moving away from meat based diets may very well be the only long term solution as recommended by authors of the report, this could be very difficult to implement in the short/medium term, due to the existing and growing demand for animal protein. While advocating any kind of measures to restrict production, sale or export of meat, care also needs to be taken that this does not adversely impact the livelihood or market-access of small farmers, particularly in low- and middle income countries.

“Antibiotic free”?

The World Animal Protection report is also critical of recent trends among some farmers claiming their products are “antibiotic free” as it feels that, from an animal welfare point of view, antibiotics should be used for treating animals when disease is clinically diagnosed. While the concern about possible denial of treatment to sick farm animals is a valid one, various ongoing efforts to develop a robust certification and labelling system (like in the case of organic or Fair Trade certification) also need to be recognized as an important step towards helping lower unnecessary antimicrobial use in the farming sector.

Replace antibiotics with probiotics or herbs?

The report also does not support the replacement of antibiotics with probiotics or herbs in farming as according to it this does not address the low welfare conditions that drive emergence of the disease. This again is a valid point, though the need for improving conditions of farm animals need not be pitted against search for safer alternative therapies to antibiotics, provided they are clinically proven to be effective against disease.

Weak spot: data mainly from high income countries

Another small drawback with the data and examples cited in the World Animal Protection report is that they are mostly from high income countries. The uptake of documents among policy groups in most developing countries tends to be higher when examples from resource-poor settings are given. Otherwise, it gets rejected with the argument “first world solutions do not work here”.

Ultimately the challenge of controlling antibiotic resistance fuelled by current farming practices is to reduce the use of antibiotics while also addressing the economic and nutritional implications of the steps taken to achieve this goal.


1, Coronavirus and the ‘Pangolin Effect’: Increased exposure to wildlife poses health, biosafety and global security risks. World Bank Blogs. March 2020.

2, NCBI: Risk factors for human disease emergence. 

3, Reducing antimicrobial use in food animals. Thomas P. Van Boeckel, Emma E. Glennon, Dora Chen, Marius Gilbert, Timothy P. Robinson, Bryan T Grenfell, Simon A. Levin, Sebastian Bonhoeffer, Ramanan Laxminarayan. Science. 29 Sep 2017 : 1350-1352

4, Innes, G. K., Randad, P. R., Korinek, A., Davis, M. F., Price, L. B., So, A. D., & Heaney, C. D. (2020). External Societal Costs of Antimicrobial Resistance in Humans Attributable to Antimicrobial Use in Livestock. Annual Review of Public Health.

5, Grundin J, Blanco Penedo I, Fall N, Sternberg Lewerin S. ”The Swedish experience” – a summary on the Swedish efforts towards a low and prudent use of antibiotics in animal production [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2020 Oct 13]. Report No.: 5. Available from SLU.

6, Laxminarayan, R., Van Boeckel, T.,Teillant, A. 2015. Global Antimicrobial Use in the Livestock Sector. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. TAD/CA/APM/ WP(2014)34/FINAL.

7, Bruinsma, J. Editor. 2003. World agriculture towards 2015/2030: An FAO Perspective. Lon- don: Earthscan Publications Ltd., page 159. Available at FAO.

8, Weforum: This map shows how much each country spends on food 


More news and opinion from 2020