FDA report shows antibiotic use in livestock is sky high & growing

The latest numbers on sales of antibiotics for use in meat and poultry production show we need government action to end the overuse and misuse of the drugs in livestock.

New 2014 sales data released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration today reveals that sales of medically important antibiotics for use in livestock have increased a whopping 23% between 2009 and 2014, with a 3% increase from 2013. And an overwhelming 96% of these sales were for use in animal feed and water--which is generally done for the purpose of growth promotion or disease prevention in animals that are not sick.

This is troubling when livestock sales already represent about 70% of sales of medically important antibiotics in the United States. Overuse of antibiotics in the agricultural industry helps increase the prevalence of drug-resistant superbugs. Two million Americans suffer from drug-resistant illnesses every year, and more than 23,000 die as a result.

The pressing need for action

This December, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a technical report that could not have been clearer. It concluded:

Because of the link between antibiotic use in food-producing animals and the occurrence of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans, antibiotic agents should be used in food-producing animals only to treat and control infectious diseases and not to promote growth or to prevent disease routinely.

Similarly, the World Health Organization, recommended during November's World Antibiotic Awareness Week that we need to "[e]nsure that antibiotics given to animals . . . are only used to control or treat infectious diseases" (emphasis theirs).

Progress made and the continuing need for further action

Over the last year, we have had significant commitments from large restaurant chains and producers to move away from the routine use of antibiotics important to human medicine in the production of meat (primarily poultry). The list of announcements has included the producers Perdue, Tyson, Foster Farms, and Pilgrim's Pride (for 25% of their production), as well as the restaurants Chick-fil-A, McDonalds, and Subway. This is real progress, but Perdue aside, these commitments are for reductions in use in the future. When these commitments are realized, the reductions could be meaningful, but importantly, we have seen no firm announcements yet in the pork, turkey, or beef sectors and these announcements still represent less than 50% of the chicken industry.

We need more than market action to get where we need to go. This is why California's new law is so important--it prohibits the use of medically important antibiotics in a regular pattern for any purpose except for treating or healing sick or injured animals or controlling the spread of disease that is present in the herd or flock. It extends progress to the pork, turkey, and beef sectors. Efforts are under way in Oregon and Maryland to achieve similar results.

But we need nationwide action if we are to keep our lifesaving drugs working for sick people. FDA's proposed solution (Guidance 213) won't really fix the problem because it allows the same uses to continue under a different name. FDA remains committed to a flawed, voluntary policy that is unlikely to change the status quo at a time when a major course correction is the need of the day.

About the Authors

Avinash Kar

Senior Attorney, Health & Environment program

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