Until this month, it had been more than two years since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made significant updates to its data and reporting on antibiotic use in livestock and poultry production. The agency released a new report summarizing the sales and distribution data of antimicrobial drugs approved for use in animal agriculture.
Large factory farms routinely use antibiotics to compensate for filthy conditions. Unfortunately, as farmers continue to use larger amounts of the drugs each year, the bacteria they are trying to eliminate eventually become resistant and much more difficult to treat. This has contributed to an increase in public health outbreaks, with the CDC reporting more than 2 million cases of human infections with antibiotic resistant bacteria each year, and upwards of 23,000 deaths.
The FDA data is important because it links increasing quantities of antibiotic use in the production of cattle, poultry, and other livestock with progressively difficult-to-treat bacterial infections.
Major findings in the FDA report include:
- Overall, antibiotic sales went up by 17 percent over a five-year period.
- For antibiotics that are important for human medicine, sales for use in animals went up by 20 percent in that same time frame.
- Medically important antibiotics (for humans) accounted for nearly two-thirds of total sales of antibiotics for use in animal agriculture.
- Nearly all the medically important antibiotics given to animals were administered in food or water, a practice that can lead to imprecise dosing and higher likelihood of antibiotic resistance.
The FDA report is not without critics, however. Sarah Borron at nonprofit advocacy group Food & Water Watch calls the new data inadequate, and points out that in order to better understand how antibiotic use in livestock production relates to antibiotic resistance patterns, “we at least need to know how antibiotic use breaks down by different types of animals and why the antibiotics are being given to the animals.”
Currently, FDA only requires antimicrobial drug sponsors to report the amount of antimicrobial drugs they sell or distribute for use in food-producing animals. These sales and distribution data do not directly correlate to actual use of the products.
“It makes a difference,” says Borron, “whether the antibiotics are given to healthy animals to prevent disease or to sick animals to treat disease. It also makes a difference to know which animals are getting which types of antibiotics as we examine, for instance, how Salmonella and E. coli are resistant to different drugs in different types of meat.”
While it is impossible to get a clear picture of exactly how antibiotics are being used in livestock production based on current data reporting requirements, it is possible to correlate the dramatic increase in antibiotic use in agriculture with the increasing amounts of Salmonella and E. coli cases each year. You can help protect yourself by choosing antibiotic-free meats and avoiding meat from factory farms that rely on antibiotics to make up for cramped, unsanitary conditions.