Frontier Group


Resistant Infections in Children, and the Role of Antibiotic Use in Agriculture

Evidence is emerging that one type of dangerous resistant infection linked to factory farms – urinary tract infections caused by resistant E coli – is becoming increasingly widespread, particularly in children.

Gideon Weissman

Former Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

The routine use of antibiotics on livestock leads to resistant bacteria that can infect humans – for example, through contaminated food – causing difficult and hard-to-treat infections. According to the CDC, food contaminated with resistant bacteria causes 430,000 illnesses in the United States each year.

Now, evidence is emerging that one type of dangerous resistant infection linked to factory farms – urinary tract infections caused by resistant E coli – is becoming increasingly widespread. Research conducted in the past few years has revealed that resistant E coli is finding its way from farms to food, where once consumed it can end up in the urinary tract and cause infection. This route of transmission is a significant source of infection. And while UTIs are often considered somewhat innocuous these days, when they are caused by resistant bacteria they can be far harder to treat, and thus more dangerous.

For children in particular, the consequences of resistant UTIs are severe, and can include kidney scarring and kidney failure. Just last week, a study of E coli UTIs in children revealed that more than half of such infections in the developed world, and up to 80 percent in poorer countries, are now resistant to antibiotics.

Considering that UTIs in children lead to more than 1 million US hospital visits every year, these high rates of resistance are a cause for serious concern, but practices on factory farms don’t reflect the gravity of the situation. Indeed, factory farms in the United States today use antibiotics with minimal restrictions or oversight. And despite the fact that antibiotic overuse is unnecessary for a productive food system, livestock sales of antibiotics critical for human health, and specifically for the treatment of E coli infections, are on the rise. Livestock sales of penicillin – the class of antibiotics used for many first line treatments of E coli UTIs – increased by 28 percent from 2009 to 2014. In 2014, nearly 1,000 tons of penicillin were sold for use on animals, enough to treat about 120 million human UTI cases.[1] Since penicillin resistance is already so widespread, it is perhaps more concerning that livestock sales of antibiotics used for second line treatments are on the rise too. For example antibiotics called cephalosporins, which are used when first line E coli treatments fail, saw livestock sales increase by nearly 60% from 2009 to 2014.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has highlighted the danger to children from animal antibiotic use before. And the fact that sales of antibiotics for livestock are on the rise is troubling. But there is good news: Private companies and elected officials have started to help ensure that livestock producers reform their use of antibiotics – for example, by not giving antibiotics to healthy animals just to speed growth or prevent disease – through commitments to purchase antibiotic-free meat, and through policy restrictions on farm practices. But as evidence grows of the human cost of drug resistance, and as antibiotic use on livestock continues to creep upward, it’s clear that much more needs to be done.



[1] Assuming 750 mg of penicillin-class antibiotics for a full schedule of treatment, based on dosing information here. Antibiotic sales figures available from FDA.[pdf]


Gideon Weissman

Former Policy Analyst, Frontier Group