Antibiotic Use in US Farm Animals Was Falling. Now It’s Not.

An initiative meant to stop deadly superbugs and improve animal welfare has stalled out.

Henadzi Pechan/Getty Images

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This story was originally published by Wired and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

New federal data released Tuesday shows that efforts in the United States to reduce unnecessary antibiotic use in livestock—a persistent generator of drug-resistant superbugs that can harm human health—have lost momentum, five years after the Obama administration imposed long-awaited rules to control misuse.

The US Food and Drug Administration’s 2020 report on sales of antibiotics for use in cattle, swine, and poultry—which include many classes of antibiotics also used in human medicine—shows that a sharp drop in sales in 2016 and 2017 stalled out in 2018, moving just a few percentage points up and down since. All told, sales of what the agency calls “medically important” antibiotics totaled 6 million kilograms (13.23 million pounds) in 2020, a 3 percent dip from the previous year and 8 percent higher than the 5.55 million-kilogram (12.25 million pounds) low point in 2017.

The data comes from an FDA document cumbersomely titled the “Summary Report on Antimicrobials Sold or Distributed for Use in Food-Producing Animals,” commonly known as the ADUFA Report (for its enabling legislation, the Animal Drug User Fee Act). It has been published every December since 2009, part of a deal struck during the Obama administration as the first step in a long reform program aimed at changing the way livestock is raised.

Meanwhile, an analysis that matches the first 10 years of those reports with parallel sales data for human medications—gathered not by the FDA but by the private sector—shows that antibiotic use in people has been stable for more than a decade. The analysis, released in November by two science-focused nonprofits, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, shows that sales for animal use are twice as high as those for people. In 2019, the year their analysis stopped, animals accounted for 65.3 percent of medically important antibiotics sold.

That is an extraordinary proportion, given that most antibiotics used in animal agriculture are not administered to cure infections—which is what antibiotics are for—but instead as a form of insurance, for preventing infections in crowded feedlots and barns.

Researchers working on the topic are dismayed that farm antibiotic use has not been forced down further. Almost no one, though, seems surprised. They say those Obama-era rules—which outlawed using tiny doses of antibiotics known as growth promoters, used to speed up weight gain—were never adequate. If the US is ever going to make significant progress in curbing animal antibiotic use and the superbugs that flow from it, tougher action is needed.

“We need the FDA to step up,” says Matthew Wellington, the public health campaigns director for the US Public Interest Research Group, which leads a coalition that pressures big restaurant chains to buy meat raised without antibiotic overuse. “When they made their initial regulations around growth promotion use, we told them that’s not going to be enough: You have to completely eliminate routine use of antibiotics, and make sure that the drugs are only used to treat sick animals in very limited circumstances.”

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