Antibiotics in Global Meat Production: 4 Surprising Things You Didn't Know

Turkeys being raised on a turkey farm.USDA photo by Scott Bauer.

For the past sixty years, antibiotics have played a critical role in protecting public health and have been responsible for saving millions of human lives. Unfortunately, inappropriate use of antibiotics in industrial livestock production is threatening their efficacy. The non-therapeutic use of antibiotics by the modern food animal industry - to prevent, not just treat, disease caused by crowded dirty conditions and speed up growth - is responsible for drug-resistant bacteria emerging on farms. Research has shown that these harmful bacteria can infect people through human or animal carriers, the environment and the food people eat. Because of huge the public health risks and costs associated with antibiotic resistance - an estimated $20 billion in excess health care costs each year in the US alone - there is a push in the medical community to end the non-therapeutic use of medically important drugs in livestock production.

Last month, I attended a conference hosted by the New York Academy of Sciences called Antibiotics in Food: Can More Do Less?  The daylong meeting of researchers, animal agriculture experts, and physicians was designed to address the following questions: Why and how and to what degree are antibiotics used in the food system globally? How do they contribute to antibiotic resistance in humans and animals? And are there viable alternatives that may be used to achieve the same objectives?

Over the course of the day, I learned four surprising facts about the use of antibiotics in our food system. I'm willing to bet they'll surprise you, too:

1. Nobody knows exactly how much antibiotics are being used in animal agriculture globally. 

Researchers and government agencies around the world have no idea exactly how many antibiotics are going into our food. Since 97 percent of antibiotics used for farm animals in the US alone are purchased over the counter, without any veterinary involvement or oversight, it's incredibly difficult to track exactly how many pharmaceuticals farm animals are consuming. But this isn't just a US problem - it's a global problem. Vietnam, China and Thailand are antibiotic use hotspots, according to Dr. Delia Grace of the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya, and in many of these places, antibiotics are being distributed by untrained local business people and purchased by farmers who use them without the oversight of a vet, which are few and far between in the developing world.

According to Dr. Grace, the rise of the global population and decreasing number of extremely poor people is driving the increased demand for meat production around the world, which in turn is driving antibiotic use and resistance. Globally, it's estimated that 65,000 tons of antibiotics were consumed by farm animals in 2010. By 2030, researchers estimate that antibiotic use on farms around the world will increase by 67 percent, largely due to increased pork and poultry production. To tackle the overuse of antibiotics, we need to look beyond our own borders and find solutions that work on a global scale.

2. The majority of antibiotics sold to meat and poultry farmers are medically important to humans.

In a presentation on antibiotics in animal production, researcher H. Morgan Scott of Texas A & M University explained that 62 percent of antibiotics sold to animal farmers in the United States are medically important to humans. This means that in the US, antibiotics which were originally developed to protect human health are being used instead to treat infections in animals and/or make them grow faster (a supposed side effect of antibiotics).

When bacteria are continually exposed to small amounts of antibiotics, some resistant bacteria are able to thrive and reproduce, while others die off, resulting in a new population resistant to the antibiotic. As a result, the drug is no longer effective. This is a huge problem when the drug is medically important to people whose life may depend on that antibiotic. Today, the CDC estimates that each year in the US at least 2 million people will acquire antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections, and 23,000 people will die as a result of those infections, making it incredibly important to get these drugs out of our food system and reserve them for life-saving medical use.

3. Antibiotics don't really help animals gain weight faster.

Industrial farms have been adding antibiotics to livestock feed since 1946, when studies first showed that antibiotics caused animals to grow faster and put on weight more efficiently, increasing meat producers' profits. Today, non-therapeutic antibiotics (i.e., antibiotics for purposes other than curing disease) are routinely fed to livestock, poultry and fish on industrial farms to promote growth and prevent diseases that are caused by the unsanitary conditions in which they're raised. But according to research presented by Stacy Sneeringer of the USDA's Economic Research Service, farms in the US using antibiotics for livestock production typically only see a one to three percent increase in growth promotion - a statistic that is not statistically significant. This fact begs the question: Why are antibiotics used for this purpose? If more livestock producers were aware of the limited growth impact these expensive drugs were having on their animals, and were able to curb diseases in their flocks through more sustainable production methods like the increased use of vaccines and less crowded conditions for animals, antibiotic use could conceivably be reduced.

4. The Dutch stopped using antibiotics in their huge meat industry years ago, and their food system didn't fall apart.

According to the International Trade Center, the Netherlands is the fourth largest exporter of meat in the world. It was surprising then to learn that in 2011, the Netherlands successfully banned all non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. At the same time, to better monitor the use of antibiotics on farms, the government started collecting prescription data from vets, monitoring and tracking the use of the drugs on farms and flagging problematic antibiotic use. The government also started matching individual farmers with veterinarians who can help them develop plans for treating their animals and establish benchmarks for antibiotic use on the farm. Finally, the Dutch set up a system where meat processors won't accept meat or livestock products that have higher antibiotic levels than the established benchmarks to create an economic incentive in the private sector to keep antibiotic use to a minimum.

According to Dr. Jaap A. Wagenaar of the University of Utrecht, as a result of this program, the Netherlands has seen a 65 percent reduction in antibiotic sales to livestock producers in the country since 2007, with no evidence that animal welfare standards have suffered, livestock production levels have dropped or food prices have increased as a result. This should be food for thought (sorry) for farmers and policy makers here in the US. While Dutch researchers have not yet seen evidence that the reduction in antibiotic use in farming has helped reduce antibiotic resistance in humans, they continue to collect data from hospitals and farms to study the issue closely. 


Image "k7038-4" by US Department of Agriculture on Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.