More Superbugs? Despite Warnings, Farm Antibiotic Use Is Rising Worldwide

The expanding global middle class wants to eat more cheap meat.

(Photo: Edwin Remsberg/Getty Images)

Sep 17, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

In the last year, “antibiotic-free” has become a great marketing tool for everyone from Perdue to McDonald’s. As consumers have woken up to the health risks of overusing antibiotics, they’ve been clamoring for meats that slow rather than worsen the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Overuse of antibiotics in the United States and Europe—particularly in animal agriculture—has led to a severe increase in antibiotic-resistant diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that these types of infections are responsible for more than 2 million infections and 23,000 deaths a year in the U.S. alone. With the FDA finally taking action to reduce the use of antibiotics in livestock—regulations that have been roundly criticized—and some of the largest restaurants and retailers trying to limit the amount of drugs used in their livestock supply, it would seem like some progress is finally being made on the issue. Elsewhere, however, producing more meat rather than producing it carefully is often the main concern.

As a new report by the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy shows, low- and middle-income countries are also seeing rising rates of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. “As we get more data from more countries, we’ll find that antibiotic resistance is now a serious problem not just in the developed world but also developing world,” said report author Ramanan Laxminarayan.

There are two reasons for this phenomenon. The first is that “rising incomes are increasing access to antibiotics,” the CCDEP reported. The second is that as incomes grow, so do appetites for animal products, which lead to increased production and a skyrocketing use of antibiotics. The U.N. has projected that by 2030, the amount of antibiotics used in livestock will rise by two-thirds.

That rise in resistance has varied effects on public health around the globe. The study found that the bacteria K. pneumoniae, which can cause damage to the lungs, has developed huge resistance to the antibiotic ampicillin, particularly in Asia and Africa, where the median resistance ranged from 94 to 100 percent. In India, three different classes of drugs are only 20 percent effective against various strains of E. coli. Worryingly, bacteria are even developing resistances to last-resort antibiotics such as carbapenem. “If these trends continue, infections that could once be treated in a week or two could become routinely life-threatening and endanger millions of lives,” Sumanth Gandra, CCDEP resident scholar in New Delhi, said in a press release.

This report is the first to look at antibiotic resistance on a global scale, and the authors worked with private companies and hospitals to collect data for various countries. Laxminarayan explained that low- and middle-income countries have not been included in these reports before because their governments rarely have the resources to put together comprehensive studies on the subject. While India was found to have particularly high rates of antibiotic resistance, Laxminarayan said that China “leads the world in global consumption of antibiotics for animals by a long margin.”

While agricultural producers in the U.S.—particularly of chicken—might be taking steps to reduce antibiotics, this is not the case in countries that are still developing a system of industrial agriculture. The authors wrote that “the countries with the greatest expected increases in food demand and animal antibiotic use currently have the least efficient farming systems.” Unfortunately, routinely adding antibiotics to animal feed is a tried-and-true method to make up for illness or stunted growth caused by poor animal management and low hygiene standards.

In the short term, unrestricted use of antibiotics seems like a great thing (which is why we got into this mess in the first place). They keep animals from getting sick and raise a farmer’s income by increasing the weight of the animals in a shorter period of time. But there is a very real cost to antibiotic resistance—not just in extended illnesses and deaths, but in the price of each dose.

“When it comes to antibiotic-resistant infections, the rich pay with their wallets and the poor pay with their lives,” Laxminarayan said in a press release. The cheapest antibiotics are often the ones used most frequently and therefore are the most likely for bacteria to develop resistances against. So drug companies develop new antibiotics—whether derivatives of established antibiotics or entirely new substances. Yet, as the CCDEP report reveals, “Every new generation of new antibiotics has proven exponentially more expensive than its predecessors.” Perhaps cost could finally drive antibiotics out of agriculture, but waiting to reach that point will likely take too long for families who struggle to afford antibiotics even at today’s prices.

In a society where humans and animals alike regularly make trips across the world, one country’s issues with disease will eventually become a global problem. Laxminarayan said that as a first step, he would like to see a ban on feed with premixed antibiotics. He added that removing antibiotics from the supply chain is really an issue of increasing hygiene and nutrition for animals. “If you can ensure that, you don’t need antibiotics,” he explained.

The consumer backlash against antibiotics in meat has also been significant in cutting down the use of these drugs. “Changing consumer preferences is now driving what companies do,” Laxminarayan said. The last time he was in New York City, he noticed a giant billboard advertising antibiotic-free chicken. “You would have never expected to see a billboard like that five years ago,” he said.