U.S. Policymakers Must Do More to Reduce Antibiotic Use in Livestock

U.S. Policymakers Must Do More to Reduce Antibiotic Use in Livestock
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It’s hard to keep up with today’s fast-paced news cycle, but there is one issue that should remain in the forefront of everyone’s minds: Antibiotic resistance --a global public health crisis, that is getting more serious each day. There has been a steady flow of news warning us that antibiotics are becoming increasingly ineffective against deadly bacterial infections and urgent action must be taken. One way to address this growing crisis is by reducing unnecessary antibiotic use in livestock. So today, a group of leading physicians, veterinarians and other experts released a policy roadmap that outlines key steps the U.S. can take, specifically in food-animal production, to help tackle the global crisis of antibiotic resistance. (Full disclosure: I served as the co-chair of this Expert Commission.)

Whenever we use antibiotics, we potentially fuel the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a.k.a, superbugs. In the U.S. and around the world, antibiotics are used routinely in people and animals, so superbugs flourish and cause infections that are difficult, if not impossible, to treat. While some positive policies have been implemented to curb inappropriate antibiotic usage in U.S. food-animal production , it has been too slow and fallen far short of what is needed. That is why, the report, Combating Antibiotic Resistance: A Policy Roadmap to Reduce Use of Medically Important Antibiotics in Livestock, outlines 11 core policy recommendations, to help move the U.S. forward in addressing the contribution of livestock antibiotic use to the growing global threat of antibiotic resistance.

We all agree that both clinicians and food-animal producers must become better stewards of our life-saving antibiotics to ensure they remain effective. However, U.S. policy to date has focused more on setting measurable reduction goals in human medicine. The same cannot be said for antibiotic use in animal agriculture, where 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are consumed. This is disappointing because the most recent data shows that more than 34 million pounds of antibiotics were sold for use in food-animal production in 2015 compared to approximately 8 million pounds of antibiotics sold in human medicine in 2011 (the most recent data available). Most of these antibiotics are used to compensate for overcrowded and dirty living conditions. This breeds drug-resistant bacteria that can end up in our air and water or on the meat products that we purchase in restaurants and grocery stores, and ultimately these superbugs can make their way into our bodies.

The policy roadmap outlines 11 recommendations on how U.S. policy can and should better address antibiotic use in food-animal production and its contribution to antibiotic resistance. The recommendations are split into three key areas: decreasing livestock use of medically important antibiotics, monitoring livestock antibiotic use, and enhancing surveillance and data integration to inform antibiotic resistance policy. The recommendations are aimed at a broad cross section of stakeholders: state and federal policy makers,food companies and institutional food purchases (i.e. hospitals, schools and universities).

In short, the recommendations are steps that will help ensure that on-farm use of medically important antibiotics is monitored and reduced, and that there will be adequate surveillance of the development and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Virtually every leading medical and public health organization (including the World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) agrees that without more decisive action, we will soon be living in a world where people die routinely of bacterial infections that were once easily treatable with antibiotics. More prudent use of antibiotics in human medicine and in livestock production is paramount. While some positive policies have been implemented to curb inappropriate antibiotic use in U.S. food-animal production, they’ve been too slow and fall far short of what is needed. While state and federal policymakers have important roles to play, action is need from all stakeholders. 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. It’s time for more concrete, comprehensive action. We need these policies to protect the public, and we need them urgently because time is running out for preserving the efficacy of our life-saving antibiotics.

The full report, list of commission members, executive summary and appendices can be accessed at: http://battlesuperbugs.com/PolicyRoadmap.

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