The meat industry’s antibiotic problem, explained

The meat industry’s antibiotic problem, explained

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) knew that the US meat industry had a drug problem.

For decades, evidence had been accumulating that the widespread use of antibiotics to help chickens, pigs and cattle grow faster – and survive the overcrowded conditions of factory farms – caused bacteria to mutate and develop antibiotic resistance. In 2009, US agricultural companies bought up two-thirds of what are called medically important antibiotics – those used in human medicine. This in turn has made the precious, life-saving drugs less effective for humans.

Over time, human infections that were once easy to treat, such as sepsis, urinary tract infections, and tuberculosis, became more difficult or sometimes impossible to treat. A fundamental component of modern medicine began to crumble. But it wasn’t until the mid-2010s that the FDA finally took the fundamental steps of requiring farmers to obtain veterinary prescriptions for antibiotics and banning the use of antibiotics to make animals grow faster — steps that some European regulators had taken a decade or more ahead.

Thanks to these two actions alone, sales of medically important antibiotics for livestock fell 42 percent from 2015 to 2017. But according to Matthew Wellington of the Public Interest Research Group, the FDA’s reforms went after the low-hanging fruit, and they didn’t go nearly far enough. Now, in a worrying reversal, sales of antibiotics for use in livestock increased 7 percent from 2017 to 2021, according to a new FDA report. The chicken industry, which had led the pack in reducing antibiotic use on farms, bought 12 percent more antibiotics in 2021 than in 2020.

It’s a sobering turn with implications for life and death. In 2019, antibiotic-resistant bacteria directly killed over 1.2 million people, including 35,000 Americans, and more than 3 million others died from diseases in which antibiotic resistance played a role – far more than the global burden of HIV/AIDS or malaria, leading the world Health Organization calls antibiotic resistance “one of the greatest threats to global health, food security and development today.”

Public health advocates want to see the FDA take the threat much more seriously, and often point to Europe as a role model. From 2011 to 2021, sales of antibiotics for use in livestock fell by almost half in the EU, and the use per animal is now around half that of the US. Last year, the EU implemented perhaps its most significant reform to date: banning the routine use of antibiotics to prevent disease, reserving their use only when animals are actually sick. The critical step is expected to further reduce the continent’s antibiotic use.

A large fake syringe injects a green liquid into a large fake piece of meat.

Activists with the environmental organization Greenpeace campaign against the excessive use of antibiotics in livestock farming in front of an outlet at discount retailer Lidl in Berlin on July 25, 2017.
John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

The FDA is unlikely to follow in Europe’s footsteps anytime soon. When asked about an EU-style ban on the preventive use of antibiotics, an FDA spokesperson replied: “The laws in the US and our livestock population are not the same as in the EU or other countries. FDA’s initiatives to promote prudent use and reduce AMR [antimicrobial resistance] was developed specifically for the United States and the conditions we face with the aim of maximizing efficiency and collaboration between drug sponsors, veterinarians and animal producers.”

The FDA and the US food industry have proven that they can make progress on the problem – but to continue to work, they need to do a lot more. That will require them to tackle beef and pork, two of the more stubborn and complex sectors of America’s meat system that just can’t stop using antibiotics, since it could require significant changes in how animals are raised for food.

The American antibiotic-free revolution that wasn’t

It wasn’t just the FDA’s new rules that caused antibiotic sales for livestock to plummet over a two-year period—Big Chicken also played a role.

In the early 2000s, the nation’s fourth-largest chicken producer, Perdue Farms, began efforts to wean its birds off antibiotics, which it accomplished in 2016 by changing its chickens’ diet and replacing antibiotics with vaccines and probiotics. Initially, chicken raised without antibiotics cost 50 percent more, but the company says it has since been able to all but close the cost gap.

In the mid-2010s, as Perdue made progress, activists capitalized on the momentum and convinced McDonald’s to buy chicken raised without medically important antibiotics. Tyson Foods, the nation’s largest poultry producer, then committed to reducing antibiotic use, contributing to a “domino effect” in which producers and restaurants made further pledges to reduce antibiotics in poultry, Wellington said.

In 2020, just over half of America’s 9 billion chickens raised for meat were raised without antibiotics, according to an industry survey.

The sea change in chicken production showed that it was possible to quickly scale back antibiotics in farming, but it did not do much to reduce overall use, as the chicken industry used only 6 percent of antibiotics in agriculture in 2016. t is spreading to other parts of the meat industry, such as beef and pork, which together account for over 80 percent of medically important antibiotics fed to farm animals.

Some of the lack of progress in beef and pork comes down to the simple fact that pigs and cattle are raised differently than chickens. Chickens are slaughtered at only six or seven weeks old, so the chance of them getting sick is less than pigs that are slaughtered at six months old, or cattle that are slaughtered at around three years of age.

The chicken industry is also vertically integrated, meaning a company like Tyson or Perdue controls virtually every link in the supply chain, so it’s easier to make big changes like cutting out antibiotics than in the more decentralized beef supply chain. For example, the typical steer will change hands several times before slaughter, from breeder to pasture to feedlot, making it more difficult to coordinate an antibiotic-free diet. During the last months of their lives, cattle are also fed a high-grain diet that they are not adapted to digest, increasing the chance of them developing a liver abscess, a condition that is prevented with—you guessed it—antibiotics.

The pork sector, like poultry, is also vertically integrated, but the industry has largely resisted animal welfare, environmental and antibiotic reforms. Antibiotics in pig production increased by 25 per cent from 2017 to 2021.

Nor is any pig or cattle champion that has taken the antibiotic-free leap that Perdue did for chicken. That could change in the coming years: McDonald’s, the world’s largest beef purchaser, announced at the end of 2022 that it plans to reduce antibiotic use in its beef supply chain. However, the announcement did not come with a timeline, which worries advocates like Wellington, and the company has failed to deliver on other promises.

Although voluntary change can move the needle, without regulation, industry has little incentive to make the dramatic reductions necessary to protect antibiotics. While the FDA has banned meat producers from using antibiotics to promote growth — their original purpose in agriculture — some of the growth-promoting antibiotics, such as tylosin, are still allowed for disease prevention, a loophole that prevents producers from reducing antibiotics, Wellington said: “Our concern has always been that they’re just putting a different name on the same type of use, which is a problem.”

An aerial view of a few dozen cattle out in a feedlot.

Cattle at a feedlot in Texas.
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In response to this concern, an FDA spokesperson said, “Veterinarians are on the front lines, and as prescribers, they are in the best position to ensure that both medically important and nonmedically important antimicrobials are used appropriately.”

Aside from an outright ban on the routine use of medically important antibiotics to prevent disease, Wellington said he wants to see the FDA take three actions: set a goal to reduce antibiotic use by 50 percent by the end of 2025 (based on 2010 levels ) ; publish data on antibiotic use, not just sales; and limit the duration of antibiotic courses for farmed animals.

An FDA spokesperson said specific reduction targets were not possible because the agency does not know how many antibiotics farmers use: “We cannot effectively monitor antimicrobial use without first putting in place a system to determine [a] baseline and assess trends over time.” The agency currently only collects sales data, and it has explored a voluntary public-private approach to collecting and reporting real-world usage data.

Some states have not waited for federal regulators: Maryland and California have both restricted the use of antibiotics on farms.

How the Europeans – and some Americans – are ending antibiotics on the farm

Just because it’s difficult to reduce antibiotics in beef and pork production doesn’t mean it’s impossible, as the story of Iowa pig farmers Tim and Deleana Roseland shows.

In 2005, they switched from raising pigs the conventional way — tightly crammed and fed a steady diet of antibiotics — to raising pigs for Niman Ranch, a higher-welfare meat company now owned by Perdue. It required Roselands to stop the routine use of antibiotics.

“I was nervous about it at first, but it turned out to be no big deal,” Tim Roseland said. But he added that it would not have been possible with his old set-up: “There is too much overcrowding, small pens, too many pigs crammed into a small area.”

Their newer system gives each pig more space in larger pens, and bedding for them to rummage through and chew on, instead of chewing on each other when packed into factory farms. They also give the pigs several vaccines and give them probiotics.

And there is much to learn from the Europeans: Denmark, the continent’s second largest pork producer, has become the actual case study in how to wean Big Meat off antibiotics. In the early 1990s, antibiotics in pigs began to be phased out with little impact on the industry. From 1992 to 2008, antibiotic use per pig fell by over 50 percent, and while pig mortality rose in the short term, by 2008 it had fallen back to almost 1992 levels.

About 10 pigs sleeping together inside a barn.

Pigs pictured on a farm in Tilsbæk, Denmark, which produces 18,000 piglets per year mainly for the domestic market.
Tom Stoddart/Getty Images

The small country’s transformation was not a matter of rocket science, but a series of smart management practices: more frequent barn cleaning, better ventilation, later weaning of piglets, more space per pig, extra vaccines and experimentation with feed and additives.

All of this comes with difficult trade-offs: Antibiotic-free pork costs more and requires more land, increasing the carbon footprint. But we can’t expect to have cheap meat forever without costing public health, an uncomfortable truth that has led many environmental and public health groups to champion a message of “less but better” meat.

“I think the fact that Denmark, despite very low antibiotic use since 1995, is still one of the largest pork exporters in the world already speaks for itself,” said Francesca Chiara, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and policy.

Given the projected increase in global antibiotic sales to agriculture, Denmark’s example may not speak loudly enough. But it’s time we listened – nothing less than the future of human medicine is at stake.

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