Very High Livestock Antibiotic Use Undercuts Effective Drugs

Beef, Pork Industries Must Do Better to Help Curb Antibiotic Resistance

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration just released its annual report showing last year's sales of antibiotics important to human medicine for use in livestock production.

The news wasn't good. Sales are on the rise, thanks to the pig and cattle industries. And a new NRDC analysis using these figures shows the industries are not only buying more of these drugs, but using them more intensely. 

In short, the report underscores that America's beef and pork companies must use these drugs more responsibly if we want to continue to rely on antibiotics for treating infections the way we have for decades.

What FDA’s numbers tell us

Sales of these medically important antibiotics for use in livestock were up 9%, driven by increased sales for pigs (17%) and cows (8%), over the previous year. And that’s despite a more than 17% decline in antibiotics sold for chicken, an industry that has nearly eliminated routine use of these drugs under pressure from consumers, major buyers and advocates like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

More than 6 million kilograms worth of medically important antibiotics were sold for livestock last year, compared to about 3.2 million kilograms sold for human medicine in 2015, the last year of available data. That means nearly two-thirds of all drugs of human importance are being deployed on farms. The vast majority (92%) are distributed to herds or flocks en masse, not to treat sick animals typically but to compensate for the crowded, often unsanitary, living conditions for the animals.

Routine and mass distribution of antibiotics to animals that are not sick is allowed under current FDA policy, under the rubric of "disease prevention". That should change immediately. U.S. experts agree this practice fuels the rise and spread of antibiotic-resistant infections, which number more than 2.8 million annually according to new CDC estimates. And as many as 162,000 people with these infections die each year, according to recent estimates from Washington University, much higher than the CDC’s latest mortality estimate. This number of deaths would make these kinds of infections the fourth leading cause of death in the country.

The American pig and cattle sectors now consume 81% of all medically important antibiotics sold for use in animals. It's going to be impossible to fight the growing epidemic of drug-resistant infections in people if we can't curb the rampant overuse of antibiotics by these two industries. 

The FDA tried to downplay its results. But the numbers don't lie.

The numbers also put a giant punctuation mark on last week's powerful New York Times story that demonstrated how Denmark—a big pork-producing country—has cleaned up its antibiotics practices in recent years, while the U.S. pig industry remains in denial and dragging its heels. Our analysis of the numbers, below, provides an even more detailed picture of the problem. 

The World Health Organization warns that if we want antibiotics to remain useful for treating people when they get sick, all of us need to start using them more responsibly. Clearly, we need to demand more leadership from industry—a lot more, starting with the pork and beef industries. But they aren't the only ones who have to step up to the plate. We also should be demanding  more from the FDA, the federal agency that oversees the use of antibiotics on farms and feedlots.

NRDC's latest analysis shows the intensity of drug use is up, too

Using the latest FDA data, NRDC updated an analysis we first did a year ago to compare the intensity of antibiotic use by livestock industries in the U.S., Canada and Europe. (Our methodology and metrics remain the same. For the sake of transparency, we are attaching a summary of our calculations, the data points used in making them, and the sources for those data.) Our updated analysis includes the following highlights: 

1) The intensity of medically important antibiotics used in U.S. livestock production is up over last year (from 162 mg/kg to 172 mg/kg), driven by the higher rate of use by the pig and cattle industries. (updated Figure 2) 

UPDATED FIGURE 2. Intensity of antibiotic consumption among U.S. (2018), Canadian and top nine EU livestock producers (2017)

Overall, the U.S. livestock industry consumes medically important antibiotics at a rate 61% higher than do the livestock industries in 31 European countries, collectively.

The  U.S. livestock sector consumes these antibiotics at a rate that is as much as 5 times higher as in France, the Netherlands, Denmark and the United Kingdom—all of which are among Europe's top nine food animal producers.  

2) Compared to their European counterparts, the U.S. pig and cattle industries in particular use medically important antibiotics much more intensely (updated Figure 4). 

For example, the U.S. pig industry consumes these drugs at a rate 6 times higher than does the much more responsible Danish pig industry, the world’s 4th largest pork exporter, according to our calculations.

UPDATED FIGURE 4. Intensity of antibiotic consumption in pig and cattle production in the U.S. (2018), France, United Kingdom, Netherlands, and Denmark (all 2017)

NRDC

3) Within the United States, the pig and cattle industries use these same precious medicines at a far higher rate than does the chicken industry. (updated Figure 3)

UPDATED FIGURE 3. Intensity of antibiotic consumption, by U.S. food animal sector, 2018

(Note that while the conventional U.S. turkey industry has a long way to go before being able to claim to use antibiotics responsibly, it’s a much smaller industry so the antibiotic footprint of the enormous beef and pork industries overshadows its impact.) 

About the Authors

David Wallinga, MD

Senior Health Advisor, Healthy People & Thriving Communities

Avinash Kar

Senior Attorney and Director, State Health Policy, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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