Antibiotic-resistant superbugs are on the rise in the United States in part due to the use of antibiotics on factory farm animals. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced last December that it was releasing voluntary guidelines for pharmaceutical companies to help phase out the use of antibiotics in factory farming, but a new report by Food & Water Watch reveals that the FDA’s lackluster approach to combating the problem isn’t working.

The report, How The FDA’s Voluntary Guidance Fails To Curb Antibiotic Misuse In Livestock, notes that the FDA’s voluntary guidelines for antibiotic use in farm animals only limit the use of antibiotics for promoting unnatural growth in animals. But factory farms are not advised to stop administering low doses of “preventative” antibiotics to animals.

In the United States, about 80 percent of all antibiotics – medicines designed to combat illness in humans – are used on factory farm animals. The meat industry has used antibiotics to combat the unsanitary, overcrowded conditions in which food animals are forced to live, as well as to promote unnatural growth in animals. The industry is also adamant that the use of “preventative” antibiotics in farm animals is perfectly safe.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a report last year detailing the dangers of antibiotic misuse in farm animals. According to the CDC, the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs poses a worldwide health threat. The report reveals how drug-resistant bacteria can spread from farm animals to humans though meat that is not handled or cooked properly, as well as though fertilizer and water runoff, containing animal feces and drug resistant-bacteria, that is used on food crops.

Food & Water Watch analyzed an FDA list of over 400 antibiotics to discover how much overlap exists between growth promotion uses in farm animals, which the FDA has said it is limiting, and “preventative” uses, which have not been addressed.

According to the report, 217 antibiotics important to human medicine should no longer be used to promote growth in farm animals. However, 135 or 63 percent of those drugs can still be used on farm animals for “disease prevention.” In other words, 89 percent of the drugs no longer available for use as growth promoters can still be administered to animals for other reasons, thereby doing nothing to help mitigate the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The FDA’s plan to combat antibiotic use in farm animals has been weak from the start. Pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to adopt the FDA’s optional changes. Once a pharmaceutical company revises its drug label, its antibiotic can no longer be used for growth promotion and requires veterinary oversight for preventative uses.

In 2011 alone, about 30 million pounds of antibiotic were sold to the meat and poultry industry compared to about 8 million pounds sold for the treatment of human illnesses, which means that selling drugs to the meat industry is big business for pharmaceutical companies.

Food & Water Watch notes that in order to “save antibiotics and protect human health, we need a complete ban on nontherapeutic uses” of antibiotics in farm animals. In addition to mitigating a public health threat, eliminating antibiotic use in factory farm animals would also require farms to adopt humane, sanitary practices in order to keep animals healthy.

Lean more: CDC: Factory Farms’ Use of Antibiotics Poses Worldwide Health Threat

Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. You can follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.