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A plateau in sales of antibiotics for livestock after steep decline

Following the FDA ban on use of medically important antibiotics to encourage weight gain in hogs, cattle and poultry, sales of the drugs are averaging 6.1 million kilograms (13.4 million pounds) a year, a decline of 37% from their 2015 peak. “This suggests that continued efforts to support the judicious use of antimicrobials in food-producing animals are having an impact,” said the agency in an annual report on Tuesday.

The FDA, along with health authorities worldwide, has restricted use of medically important drugs for the past several years as a precaution to assure their efficacy in treating disease in humans. Bacteria have developed resistance to antimicrobials since the wonder drugs came into common use decades ago. An estimated 2 million Americans a year develop serious infections as a result of antimicrobial-resistant pathogens and 23,000 of them die as a direct result.

Livestock consume roughly twice the volume as humans of medically important antibiotics, says an analysis by an environmental group.

Six million kilograms of the drugs were sold in 2020 for use in livestock, said the FDA report, which was based on data from drugmakers. By comparison, 6.19 million kilograms were sold in 2019 and 6.03 million kilograms in 2018. The peak was 9.7 million kilograms in 2015.

The FDA issued “guidance” to the drug industry in 2013, with a 2017 deadline for adoption, to end the use of medically important antibiotics as a growth-promoter and to require veterinary approval to use the drugs for treatment or prevention of disease in food animals.

“While there has been progress made toward antimicrobial stewardship goals, additional work is needed to address antimicrobial resistance,” said the FDA. It cautioned against using sales totals as the sole gauge of progress. For example, it said, drugs may be purchased but not used in the same year or may be used on different animals than originally intended. Livestock are the major market for antibiotics but also are far more numerous than people.

Other nations have made greater progress in antibiotic use in animals, said Steve Roach of the Food Animals Concerns Trust. U.S. sales are down by 27% in a decade.

“We are far from reaching KAW’s target goal of reducing medically important antibiotic sales by 50% from the 2009 baseline, which is needed to put us in line with other countries that have done more to eliminate antibiotic overuse in livestock production,” said Roach. KAW is a coalition of consumer, environmental and animal welfare groups. “For turkeys, there were increases in sales compared to last year and this is on the heels of a large outbreak of resistant Salmonella associated with turkey products in 2019.”

Tetracyclines are the most widely sold for animal use of the medically important antibiotics – 3.949 million kilograms of the 2020 total of 6.002 million kilograms.

Some 4.4 million kilograms of not medically important antimicrobials were sold in 2020 for livestock, putting total sales of antimicrobials for livestock use at 10.4 million kilograms. Sales of the not medically important drugs have declined since cresting in 2014 and 2015; they dropped by 16% in 2020 compared to 2019.

The FDA report is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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