The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released new data at the end of 2020 showing that overall sales of medically important antibiotics for use in food-animal production increased by 3% from 2018 to 2019, continuing a worrisome trend upward for a second year in a row. Sales increased by about 1% for use in cattle and by 9% in swine production, in contrast to the chicken industry, where sales fell by 13%.
Nearly two-thirds of medically important antibiotics sold for use in the U.S. go to food-producing animals. Much of this use is not for treating sick animals but rather given to animals on a routine basis in the hopes of staving off disease risk created by unhealthy conditions on industrial farms. Antibiotic overuse in livestock breeds drug-resistant bacteria that can travel off the farm and cause difficult, and sometimes impossible to treat infections. Medical experts warn that growing antibiotic resistance poses a serious threat to global public health as these life-saving drugs lose their effectiveness to treat infectious diseases.
In the absence of federal leadership in recent years, restaurants have played a critical role in preserving these life-saving medications by setting and implementing policies to serve only meat raised without the routine use of medically important antibiotics.
Panera, Chipotle, Chick-fil-A, McDonalds, KFC, and more than a dozen other restaurant chains have proven that change is possible. Their commitments to sourcing chicken raised without medically important antibiotics have transformed antibiotic use practices in the U.S. chicken industry. As of 2019, nearly all broiler chickens in the U.S. were raised without the routine use of antibiotics deemed medically important by the FDA.
We have yet to see a similar wave of change in the beef (or pork) sector. McDonald’s, the world’s largest beef buyer, committed in 2018 to phasing out routine antibiotic use in their massive global beef supplies and to setting reduction targets by the end of 2020. In the midst of the current pandemic, McDonald’s has missed this promised deadline. Yet the latest national livestock antibiotic sales data indicate that we need to speed up timelines and commitments to change, not slow them down, to prevent another public health crisis coming to a head.
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, bacterial resistance to antibiotic drugs was identified by experts as one of the most serious global health threats in the world today. Despite the challenges posed to the restaurant industry this year, we urge McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway, Taco Bell and other major meat buyers not to ease up on their antibiotics efforts at this time. In fact, the work to address antimicrobial resistance is now more important than ever given the interplay between these parallel global health threats.
“Before COVID-19, diseases like Tuberculosis were death sentences to millions of people around the world, while medically important antibiotics used to treat them were fed to chicken, pigs and cows,” said Jaydee Hanson, policy director at Center for Food Safety.
“Today, COVID-19 is linked to secondary bacterial infections that could lead to more antibiotic resistance.”
Just as importantly, we urge the incoming Biden administration to act on the antibiotic resistance crisis as swiftly as it will surely act on the COVID-19 crisis.
The new administration can take two immediate steps toward improving antibiotic use practices in the livestock sector: First, immediately establish a national target to reduce medically important livestock antibiotic use 50% by the end of 2023, relative to 2009 levels; and second, develop a robust system for tracking antibiotic use and resistance at the farm level — currently a major gap. Both would set the U.S. on the right course to prevent another public health disaster and ensure that life-saving medicines continue to work when we need them.
Originally published by Antibiotics Off the Menu.