Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released its annual report showing how much of the antibiotics important to human medicine were sold for use in livestock production last year. Despite a welcome and significant reduction in sales, once again, the numbers show the amount of these life-saving drugs that are going to meat production remain high.
The drop in sales likely reflects two things. The first is marketplace-driven changes in the chicken industry in recent years, spurred by commitments from fast food chains and meat producers, under pressure from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), allied groups and consumers. The second is recent FDA regulations, which followed litigation from NRDC and partners, that ban use of the drugs for growth promotion and require veterinarians to oversee their administration.
However, livestock sales of medically important antibiotics still represent almost two-thirds of sales of these precious drugs (nearly 12.3 million pounds for animal use vs. approximately 7 million pounds for human use ).
Antibiotic consumption by the U.S. pork, beef and turkey industries, as measured per kilogram of animal, significantly outstrips comparable industries in Europe (such as those in the United Kingdom, Denmark and the Netherlands, among others). We highlighted this disparity in a recent analysis, and it holds largely true even accounting for the sales drop reflected in today’s report. This disparity may soon get bigger, with the European Union’s recent passage of new legislation prohibiting the use of medically important antibiotics for so-called “disease prevention” when animals are not sick.
The high antibiotic sales for the U.S. beef and pork industries and the EU’s action underscore the critical need for continued leadership from the FDA to curb the overuse of these life-saving drugs. That means the agency must stop allowing producers to use the drugs for “disease prevention”—a common practice of giving antibiotics to animals to animals that are not sick to compensate for crowded and unsanitary living conditions found on many industrial livestock operations. The agency must also set clear, numeric goals for reducing use of the drugs in livestock altogether.
While there has been improvement, the latest US figures continue to reflect the need for strong and immediate action.
FDA’s data indicate that 12.3 million pounds of medically important antibiotics were still sold for use in U.S. livestock and poultry in 2017. In the US, livestock antibiotic use continues to account for about 64 percent of the sales of medically important antibiotics. The vast majority of these drugs (92%) are routinely distributed en masse in feed or water—often to animals that are not sick to help them survive crowded and unsanitary conditions on industrial farms.
However, to fully understand the U.S. livestock industries performance on antibiotic use, it is important to assess not just how much of the drugs the industry is using, but how intensively it is using them. This means examining antibiotic sales relative to the kilograms of livestock produced in any given year—think of it as the miles per gallon equivalent to the total consumption of antibiotic sales.
As shown in the Figure above , the U.S. livestock industry as a whole continues to consume antibiotics with an intensity significantly greater than the countries leading the way on responsible antibiotics use in the livestock sector—Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.
The UK pig industry, for example, reports that antibiotic consumption intensity declined by 53 percent in in just two years, from 2015 to 2017, with plans to reduce consumption by an additional 12 percent, to 99 mg/kg of livestock, by 2020. Similarly, the Dutch pig sector achieved a 58 percent drop in antibiotic use from 2009 to 2017. Over the same period, antibiotic use in pigs in Denmark decreased 29 percent, but that follows an already impressive 41 percent decline in antibiotic consumption in all livestock production in Denmark over the 14 years preceding 2009. Indeed, the drop in U.S. livestock antibiotic sales in 2017 itself shows how quickly change can happen.
Many countries that have succeeded in reducing the consumption of human antibiotics in livestock point to concrete reduction targets and a prohibition on growth promotion and prevention uses of antibiotics when animals are not sick as key factors in the improvements they have made. Indeed, a 2017 World Health Organization guideline recommends against these so-called ‘preventive’ uses of medically important antibiotics in groups of animals in the absence of diagnosed disease. And last month, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to ban antibiotics (in 2022) from being fed ‘preventively’ to groups of healthy farm animals across the European Union.
The livestock industries in Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom have not shifted to a completely different production system. They have moved away from routine antibiotic use with the use of common sense and better animal husbandry practices: non-antibiotic measures to prevent disease, such as better cleaning and biosecurity; vaccinations; more space per animal; later animal weaning; and a variety of other interventions in various combinations.
The EU and the WHO urge these measures be used to keep animals healthy precisely in order to avoid unnecessary uses of antibiotics.
The action needed
The U.S. FDA should build on this progress and prohibit preventive use of antibiotics in animals that are not sick to stay in step with the leaders in the developed world and with the advice of expert international organizations concerned with public health.
Such a move would also be consistent with leaders in the corporate world. Most (though not all) of the U.S. chicken industry and restaurant industry leaders have stepped up and committed to eliminating the routine use of medically important antibiotics in chicken production. Just this month McDonald’s, one of the world’s largest beef buyers, announced a new policy with the potential to drive major changes in the beef industry. The company committed to: reduce antibiotic use, set reduction targets for medically important antibiotics used in beef production, and prohibit routine preventive use of medically important antibiotics in feedlots, which are the beef supply chain’s most intensive stage. The gauntlet has been laid down for the rest of the U.S. beef industry and pork industries, which use considerably more antibiotics than the chicken industry. However, it will take more than voluntary commitments by a handful of companies to remedy this problem. As long as antibiotic overuse remains widespread in large swathes of the meat industry, FDA action remains imperative.
The path forward to responsible antibiotic use is clear and well-trodden. We urge the FDA to join these leaders in protecting the efficacy of our essential drugs—by prohibiting the routine preventive use of antibiotics and setting concrete numeric targets for the reduction of antibiotic use.
* This blog was prepared with assistance on data analysis from Maria Ma and Steve Roach of Food Animal Concerns Trust.
 Represents 2015 sales numbers for human medicine, the latest year for which we have data.
 Does not include minor species such as sheep and goats.
This blog provides general information, not legal advice. If you need legal help, please consult a lawyer in your state.