The Meat Industry Can’t Stop Buying More and More Antibiotics

New figures announced by the FDA show an increase in the amount of drugs purchased by livestock farmers.

(Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/Getty Images)

Apr 10, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration managed to actually do something it had vowed to accomplish since 1977: Limit the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock.

Since farmers first discovered in the 1950s that feeding cattle, pigs, and chickens a small, steady stream of antibiotics somehow fattened up healthy livestock, it’s become the status quo—and turned feedlots into breeding grounds for drug-resistant bacteria. In 2011, the industry bought 30 million pounds of antibiotics, close to four times as much as were used in human medicine in the United States that year.

Amazingly, that number has continued to climb. New figures were announced by FDA Friday, and overall sales are up to 32.6 million pounds. Furthermore, annual sales of medically important drugs have climbed 20 percent since 2009. In 2013, 62 percent of the antibiotics purchased by the industry—more than 20 million pounds—were drugs that are imporant to human medicine. The only figure the industry is required to report is the volume that's sold and distributed—no federal data on usage is collected.

“The data released today shows us that use of human antibiotics on the farm has continued to rise, including the use of cephalosporins, which FDA specially added new use restrictions to in 2012,” Steve Roach, a senior analyst with the health advocacy group Keep Antibiotics Working, said in a statement. “This reaffirms just how timid FDA’s approach to addressing the problem of antibiotic overuse really is, and suggests that it may have limited impact.”

The FDA’s voluntary measures were announced in December 2013, and the continued increase (save for cephalosporins) cannot be pegged to the many issues with the regulations that critics have pointed out. Still, the regulations allow the status quo to continue with a simple turn in language: Instead of growth promotion, routine antibiotic use is recast as “preventative.” As long as that’s the case, it’s likely that the upward trend will continue. In a recent study, researchers estimated that global antibiotics in livestock will increase by 67 percent come 2030.

“Implementing this strategy is an important step forward in addressing antimicrobial resistance. The FDA is leveraging the cooperation of the pharmaceutical industry to voluntarily make these changes because we believe this approach is the fastest way to achieve our goal,” Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, said in a statement back when the regulations were announced.

A 20 percent increase in antibiotic sales between 2009 and 2013 would suggest that might not be the case, and not very much is actually being done to address antimicrobial resistance, a sentiment that none other than Congress’ only microbiologist agrees with. Rep. Louise Slaughter’s Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which was once again reintroduced in March, would keep eight classes of antibiotics used in human medicine out of farming operations—an involuntary regulation.

The new data from the FDA is just the latest statistic to point toward a growing public-health crisis—the post-antibiotic era, as higher-ups at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called it. Two million people suffer infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria annually, according to the CDC, and every year, 23,000 of those cases prove fatal.