New WHO Guidelines Are a Roadmap for Reducing Antibiotic Use in Food Animals

In advance of next week’s World Antibiotic Awareness activities, the World Health Organization (WHO) today released powerful new guidelines calling for reductions in the use of antibiotics in food animal production and fish farming. This is a welcome development as antibiotic resistance is a growing global threat to human health that gets more serious with each passing day. The WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have both warned that without urgent action, we may soon be living in a world where antibiotics are no longer a match for drug-resistant bacteria, often called superbugs.

In the U.S. and around the world, antibiotics are overused and misused in people and animals, allowing superbugs to flourish and causing infections that are difficult, if not impossible, to treat. The CDC estimates that one out of every three antibiotic prescriptions given to patients are unnecessary. In response, the Obama administration set reduction targets for both inpatient and outpatient settings (20 percent and 50 percent respectively). Yet no reduction target was set for antibiotics used in food animal production. This is particularly troubling given that 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in animal agriculture. If we are going to make headway in reducing unnecessary uses of antibiotics, we must find ways to reduce use on industrial farms. WHO’s new guidelines are a roadmap the U.S. can use to do just that.

The new guidelines call for a ban on any uses of the drugs for growth promotion purposes — a practice ended here in the U.S. just this year. But, perhaps more important, the guidelines call for an end to prevention uses of the drugs unless animals (or fish) have been diagnosed with a specific bacterial illness. Antibiotics are often used in this manner to prevent illnesses that develop when animals are overcrowded or live in unsanitary conditions. This has never been a prudent use of life-saving antibiotics and public health advocates have called for an end to this type of use for nearly a decade.

While the guidelines are strong, they are only as powerful as the political will of each country to enact and enforce them. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began its work to stop use of antibiotics for growth promotion purposes in 2009. It finished that process on January 1, 2017. The U.S. is not moving at the speed this public health crisis demands. A sentinel report out of the UK stated that without urgent action, 10 million people will die globally every year by 2020 -- eclipsing deaths from cancer. The U.S. should move immediately to implement WHO’s guidelines - and there is reason to be hopeful. We were heartened to hear the U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Perdue’s recent remarks that USDA and FDA have a responsibility to tackle antibiotic resistance, noting they have a "huge responsibility" to "convince and educate our producers" to use antibiotics judiciously.

And there’s reason for even more hope as the guidelines aren’t just a roadmap for government bodies. They also should serve as the basis for policies of companies and businesses that buy, sell or raise meat, poultry or fish. Farmers, veterinarians, meat companies and public health researchers must work together to reduce unnecessary antibiotic use in all animal sectors. Animals must be raised in a way that promotes their health and where antibiotics are used to treat occasional diseases rather than being used to compensate for husbandry practices that make animals sick.

Antibiotic resistance is one of the greatest health threats of our time and it affects everyone, regardless of age or nationality. Accordingly, it’s time for more concrete, comprehensive action. The WHO guidelines give the U.S. and countries around the world a roadmap to move animal agriculture away from its reliance on routine use of antibiotics. We must act now because time is running out for preserving the efficacy of our life-saving antibiotics.

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