WASHINGTON – Sales of antibiotics important to human medicine for use in livestock dropped 28 percent from 2009 to 2017, according to annual numbers released today by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Despite this, use of medically important antibiotics in U.S. livestock continues to significantly exceed use in people and in major livestock-producing countries in Europe.
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), partner 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, the latest numbers also show the beef and pork industries remain high users of these drugs at 5.1 million pounds and 4.5 million pounds in sales respectively in 2017, compared to 590,000 pounds in the chicken industry.
A statement follows from Avinash Kar, Senior Attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council:
“We are seeing real progress, but the American meat industry continues to have a drug problem and the clock is ticking to solve it. Far more antibiotics important to humans still go to cows and pigs—usually when they’re not sick—than to people, putting the health of every single one of us in jeopardy. The good news is, the data shows change is possible and can happen quickly. To keep these life-saving drugs working for treating sick patients who need them most, the beef and pork industries have to step up.”
In the U.S., about 92 percent of medically important drugs given to livestock and poultry 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.
This practice, which is currently allowed under FDA policy, contributes to the rise and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and increases the risk of drug-resistant infections in humans. Leading medical experts warn that we must stop overuse of antibiotics in human medicine and animal agriculture, or else the life-saving drugs we rely on to treat common infections and enable medical procedures could increasingly stop working.
Conservatively, at least 2 million Americans are already infected with antibiotic-resistant infections every year, and at least 23,000 die as a direct result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More than half of the U.S. chicken industry is now under a commitment to address antibiotics overuse in its supply chain. The pork and beef industries, in contrast, remain very high users. Earlier this month, however, McDonald’s—one of the largest beef buyers in the world—announced it will reduce use of the drugs across its global beef supply chain, offering hope it will spark a wave of change in that industry.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.