In 2016, the domestic sale and distribution of antimicrobial medicine approved for use in food-producing animals decreased by 10%. The statistic is part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s annual summary of Antimicrobials Sold or Distributed for Use in Food-Producing Animals. This is the first year that the number has decreased.
The World Health Organization has identified antibiotic resistance as “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.” The U.S. Center for Disease Control agrees, and warns that antibiotic resistance “can cause illnesses that were once easily treatable with antibiotics to become dangerous infections, prolonging suffering for children and adults.” Antibiotic resistance is an urgent concern. One doesn’t have to look too far back into history to fully appreciate how different life would be without medication that can stop infections.
Some sources credit the growing number of restaurants and meat packers that have agreed to never treat their animals with antibiotics, including Subway, Perdue, and Tyson Farms. It is unclear, however, whether the two are linked. Moreover, the concern is that sick animals are not being properly treated when this happens. However, some companies like Tyson Foods are seemingly taking its commitment very seriously. They are taking important steps to make sure the animals do not get sick in the first place, and finding alternative treatments if they do. But no doubt that compassionate care for sick animals is always important.
Unfortunately, some companies (and the media) have taken the threat of antibiotic resistance as a way to play on people’s fears. Many companies will label their products as “antibiotic-free,” as a means of insinuating that the meat itself does not contain antibiotics. This is markedly different than saying that the animal was never given antibiotics. It simply means that the company complied with federal law and waited the appropriate amount of time from administration of the antibiotic and slaughter. (I have written about this trend, and why it is misleading here.) In short, all meat at the grocery store is free of antibiotics.
I would expect to see sales drop even further in 2017. In an effort to combat antibiotic resistance, the FDA’s Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) phased out the use of antibiotics in production practices (such as for promoting growth), and requiring veterinary oversight for the use of antibtioics in preventing or treating disease. The VFD went into effect at the beginning of 2017, however, so these numbers do no reflect its impact. When the numbers come in for 2017, I’m sure the use of antibiotics will be even lower.
Overall, this is really good news. I’m glad that it happened before VFD went into effect, because it shows the industry understands the problem of antibiotic resistance. Combine with the VFD, we can make some serious progress on reducing overall antibiotic use and putting off resistance. It will take all of us, including humans, to stop this problem.