Antibiotic Use in Livestock Declines, Chicken Industry Leads the Charge

Antibiotic Use in Livestock Declines, Chicken Industry Leads the Charge

Sales of antibiotics for use in the livestock industry have finally begun to decrease, says a new report from the National Resources Defense Council.

After years of warnings from the World Health Organization and leading health advocacy groups, sales of medically important antibiotics, while still higher than 2009 levels, dropped 14 percent between 2015 and 2016 for chicken suppliers, NRDC noted today. “This news follows a series of food industry commitments to reduce antibiotic use in chicken production in recent years. NRDC estimates that approximately 50 percent of the chicken industry has now made some level of commitment to curb unnecessary antibiotics used in their production.”

Antibiotics have been added to livestock feed for decades. First, as a way to mitigate the spread of diseases rampant in dense factory farm settings. But the practice became more widespread when it was discovered animals put on weight significantly faster when routinely fed antibiotics. This allowed producers to lessen the time it took animals to reach market weight, increasing profits.

But the practice of feeding antibiotics to livestock comes at a cost, namely the spread of antibiotic-resistant infections, an issue so grave the World Health Organization has warned that the “post-antibiotic era” is quickly approaching. Already, more than 23,000 Americans will die from antibiotic-resistant infections every year. Bacteria have even begun to develop resistance to drugs considered “last resort” antibiotics — those that are generally avoided because of dangerous risks including kidney failure. If last-resort antibiotics are no longer effective against infections, the World Health Organization warned something as simple as a scrape on the knee could become deadly.

And while the pork and beef industries have yet to decrease their dependence on antibiotics on par with the chicken industry, NRDC says the news is hopeful.

“This course change provides a glimmer of hope that we can beat the growing epidemic of drug-resistant infections,” said Avinash Kar, NRDC senior attorney. “The progress is no doubt influenced by the groundswell of change we’ve seen in the chicken industry in the past few years—but beef and pork are lagging behind. It will take all hands on deck to keep our miracle drugs working when sick people and animals need them.”

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