FDA data suggest more antibiotics used per pound of meat produced

Yesterday, the Food and Drug Administration put out long awaited numbers showing total sales of antibiotics sold for livestock use in 2012 (yes, it takes a while for FDA to collect and publish these numbers).  The main finding is that total sales of medically important antibiotics, ie the types that are also needed for human medicine, have increased 16% between 2009 and 2012.  Use jumped up a lot in 2012, rising nearly 8%.  FDA’s numbers also show that many of the antibiotics most precious for human medicine – those deemed to be critically important or highly important by FDA – are also among those increasingly sold for livestock use.

Use of these medically antibiotics to raise food animals is troubling because when they are routinely given to herds and flocks of animals, some bacteria become resistant, multiply, and spread to threaten people –contributing to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. Overuse of antibiotics by both humans and in food animals contributes to the problem.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has sounded the alarm, stating that rising rates of antibiotic resistance now comprise one of the top five greatest health threats facing the nation.

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My own back-of-the-envelope analysis suggests that sales of antibiotics for poultry and livestock use in the US are actually increasng faster than meat production itself, possibly meaning that poultry and livestock producers are using more and more drugs for every pound of meat produced.  My graph above shows that US production of meat and poultry has remained relatively flat between 2009 and 2012, increasingly only 2%– while sales of livestock antibiotics increased 16% during the same period. 

I say “suggests” here because the data we have from FDA is for sales of antibiotics, not actual use.  Unfortunately, the agency does not collect actual use data from producers and doesn’t know (or doesn’t publish) much about actual use practices.  The other caveat is that I compared antibiotic use with the production of meat and poultry (drawing from American Meat Institute fact sheets like this one), but left out eggs and dairy for simplicity's sake.  However, if I had included eggs and dairy the result would be similar because antibiotic use increased much faster than producton in those sectors as well.  

Digging into numbers like this makes one realize how little information FDA and the public really have about livestock drug use practices.  Hopefully the President’s new Inter-Agency Task Force on antibiotics will create new antibiotic reporting requirements to fill the gap.

I can say with 100% confidence that it’s certainly not a good sign to see antibiotic sales rising faster than meat production.  The real question is why isn’t antibiotic use going down, and down fast, given the widespread consensus among regulators and scientists that feeding these drugs to food animals is risky business?

About the Authors

Jonathan Kaplan

Director, Food & Agriculture program

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