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Report: New Survey Reveals How Little We Know About Global Livestock Antibiotics Use

August 21, 2017

A recent survey by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) shows that the Americas are by far the largest regional buyer of livestock antibiotics for the purpose of growth promotion.

Growth-promoting antibiotics in livestock are often vilified as a main cause of antibiotic resistance, and despite a groundswell of activism on the topic, the recently released report illuminates that the problem is still significant and largely unquantified.

The OIE says the report is the first global survey of antimicrobial agent (including antibiotics) use in animals and includes responses from 130 countries regarding the use of anti-microbial products in animals with varied levels of detail from the participating countries. Though the survey is an important start in monitoring the global use and misuse of antimicrobial products in livestock, the report puts just as bright a spotlight on what we still do not know, as it does on what the survey has gleaned from the180 member countries of the OIE.

Global Problem, Local Trends

The survey revealed that the United States is in the minority of countries that allow the use of anti-microbial agents in animals solely for the purpose of growth promotion. Only 34 of the 130 countries reporting allow the practice.

Though 96 countries do not permit the use of antimicrobial agents for growth promotion, 110 of the 130 countries surveyed have no restrictions on or control over the availability of these drugs, nor “appropriate conditions for the import, manufacturing, distribution, and use of veterinary medicinal products, including antimicrobial agents. As a result, these products circulate freely, like ordinary goods, and are often adulterated.” So the fact that growth-promoting antimicrobials are not permitted is likely not evidence that they are not being used as such. 

Of the regions participating in the survey, Asia has fewer than half the number of countries that allow growth promoting antibiotics, but its growing meat industry has many concerned that despite pressure, antibiotic use could grow rather than shrink on the continent.

A recent report from Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return (FAIRR) Initiative, an advisory group seeking to educate on the investment risks behind factory farming,  noted that according to the World Health Organization, the use of antibiotics in Asian chicken and pigs is projected to increase over 120% by 2030. Also according to the WHO, 80% of low and middle-income countries used antimicrobials for growth promotion.

In the FAIRR report, “Public health risks due to antibiotic resistance and the outbreak of livestock viruses” is one of the top five risks to investor holdings in the Asian Asian meat, egg, fish and dairy industries.

“Investors have a big appetite for Asia’s animal protein sector. But growth is driven by a boom in factory farming which tends to mean more emissions and more epidemics, abuse of antibiotics and abuse of labor. All risks to returns,” said Jeremy Collier, Founder of the FAIRR Initiative and CIO of Coller Capital.

The OIE report notes a dearth of information on pathogens and antibiotic resistance in livestock.

Which Animals, Which Drugs

This is the first stage of the OIE study, which focused on the buying and selling of antimicrobial agents for animal use. It is one important element of Global Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance, adopted by the WHO member states in May 2015. The data was collected by the reporting countries mainly from veterinary wholesalers and retailers, as well as import records.

Drilling down even further, 25 of the countries surveyed provided a list of antimicrobials that are in use for the purpose of growth promotion and the frequency of use, The report breaks down what animals receive non-therapeutic antibiotics and which drugs they receive with a list of 21 medications to choose from. Tylosin and Bacitracin were most frequently reported for growth promotion and for antibiotic use, Tetracyclines are the most commonly given.

Cattle, pigs, goats and poultry are unsurprisingly the most common animals reported, with horses following next in every region except the americas, where rabbits and hares follow.

According to the report, a specific point where this survey is lacking is a relevant denominator to put the anti-microbial usage in context with the size of the industry for each livestock type. 

The USDA has made attempts to curb antibiotic use for the purpose of growth promotion in the form of voluntary guidelines in 2013, but it has not made an effort to limit routine antibiotic regimes for disease prevention.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tightened regulations as well over the last three years, requesting in that pharmaceutical companies remove growth promotion indications from their “medically significant” antibiotic labels and requiring veterinary approval to use the drugs as a preventative measure.

According to Mary McKenna, author of the forthcoming book “Big Chicken; The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats” approximately  700,000 people per year die of drug-resistant infections and most livestock intended for human consumption receive antibiotics on most days of their lives across the globe.

In her 2015 TED Talk on the subject, McKenna urged that it’s not too late to “slow down the arrival of the post-antibiotic world.” One of the mitigation strategies McKenna suggested in that talk was  an elaborate tracking system for both antibiotic use and resistance in humans. This survey reveals that the first goal of recording and tracking antibiotic use in animals is likely not a near-term possibility.

Despite slow progress toward global records around antibiotic use in livestock, small moves are being made. The OIE is setting up its first US office this fall at the Institute for Infectious Animal Diseases in College Station, Texas, a unit within the Texas A&M University System. 

A handful of startups are also presenting alternatives to both therapeutic and growth promoting antibiotics, Read about the startups that are attempting to replace antimicrobial agents here.

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