The Meat Industry Refuses to Track Drugs on America’s Farms—and It’s Making Superbugs Worse

Alternatives to antibiotics exist, but farmers have no way to know when to use them.


Maryn McKenna, Mother Jones

Jul. 14, 2017


This story was originally published by Food and Environment Reporting Network.


Since the FDA began moving three years ago to control antibiotic use in meat animals—an effort that culminated in January with a ban on growth-promoter antibiotics, which fatten livestock inexpensively—farmers have wondered whether anything can take the drugs’ place.


A report released Monday by the Pew Charitable Trusts finds that an array of alternatives are already on the market, are supported by science, and are being used by some livestock producers. But it also found that development of promising products is moving slowly because manufacturers are not sure how big a market they can expect.


Ironically, part of what holds new products back is the livestock industry’s longstanding resistance to allowing data about antibiotic use to be gathered on farms—information that, if it existed, could guide antibiotic alternatives to where they are needed most.


Antibiotics are used to treat sick animals, to prevent disease by giving the drugs to animals that do not show signs of illness, and to and promote growth. Growth-promoter antibiotic dosing was disallowed in the United States as of Jan. 1 under a set of measures known as Guidances. Disease prevention and treatment are now allowed only with a veterinarian supervising.


The FDA took those steps because antibiotics given to meat animals contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and thus contribute to the 700,000 deaths and millions of illnesses caused each year by drug-resistant infections.


In 2015, the last year for which there is data, 34.3 million pounds of antibiotics were sold in the United States for animal use. That was the highest amount since the FDA began reporting annual totals in 2008. About 70 percent of those drugs were sold for “production or therapeutic indications”—a term that covers both growth promotion and disease prevention. So it seems likely that some significant proportion of those millions of pounds needs to be replaced.


In its report, which appears to be the first to survey the whole landscape of antibiotic alternatives for livestock, Pew found that some researchers anticipated the change and have been investigating alternative products for a while.


“We were amazed when we started this by how much research is out there,” Dr. Karin Hoelzer, a veterinarian and senior officer at Pew, said by phone...


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