Nearly half the antibiotics used in farming go to cows

Feeding the resistance.
Feeding the resistance.
Image: AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko
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American farmers are starting to cut back on the amount of antibiotics they use on food animals—a critical development as governments and scientists work to curb the threat of drug resistance in humans.

A new report (pdf) by the US Food and Drug Administration shows sales of antibiotics to farmers dropped by 14% between 2015 and 2016, the first decrease since the agency began publishing such data in 2009. That change comes as the public has become more aware of antibiotic resistance, which threatens to render many modern medicines—including important penicillins and and tetracyclines—ineffective.

Health experts have pinpointed animal agriculture as one of the culprits driving that looming threat, as some 9 billion food animals slaughtered in the US each year spend much of their lives on steady diets of the drugs, which farmers use to prevent and treat illnesses. Warnings by the World Health Organization and public health advocacy groups have spurred major food companies, including Perdue Farms, Tyson Foods, McDonald’s, and Subway, to push their supply chains away from using antibiotics on their food animals.

The new FDA report is particularly noteworthy because, for the first time, the agency provided data that broke down the amount used by species. About 43% of medically important drugs are used on cattle, 37% on pigs, and about 15% for chickens and turkeys. In the past few years, poultry companies have proactively moved to reduce the amount of antibiotics they use. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), about half the industry has committed to weed out the use of medically important antibiotics in the production process.

“This course change provides a glimmer of hope that we can beat the growing epidemic of drug-resistant infections,” an NRDC statement reads. “The progress is no doubt influenced by the groundswell of change we’ve seen in the chicken industry in the past few years—but beef and pork are lagging behind. It will take all hands on deck to keep our miracle drugs working when sick people and animals need them.”

Those steps are important in the larger effort to protect the effectiveness of antibiotics. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have estimated 23,000 people die in America each year as a direct result of antibiotic resistance. Some of those deaths were from illnesses once easily treated with the drugs, including MRSA and some E. coli infections.