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FDA Reports Progress In Reducing Use of Antibiotics In Food Producing Animals

Consumers Union Says Livestock Industry Must Do More to Curb Overuse of Medically Important Antibiotics Needed to Treat Deadly Superbugs

Thursday, December 7, 2017

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported today that domestic sales of antibiotics used in food-producing animals declined by 14 percent between 2015 and 2016, the first time sales have gone down since 2009 when the federal government began reporting the data.   The drop in sales represents progress in the effort to reduce the overuse of the drugs in livestock, but more aggressive action must be taken to protect the effectiveness of antibiotics needed to treat disease in humans, according to Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports.  

“The decline in antibiotics sold for meat and poultry production is welcome news, but we have a long way to go before we can rest easy about these life-saving medications,” said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports.  “Antibiotics are losing their power to fight infections, in part because they are being used to prevent disease in animals and compensate for cramped and dirty conditions found on industrial farms.  The FDA should prohibit the routine use of antibiotics in livestock so these drugs work when we really need them.”

The FDA’s latest report on antibiotics sold for food producing animals is the first time the agency has provided sales numbers by species, and points to beef and pork producers as the heaviest antibiotic users of medically important antibiotics.   Between 2015 and 2016, 43 percent of medically important antibiotics were sold for cattle, while 37 percent was for swine, 9 percent was for turkey, 6 percent was for chicken, and 4 percent was for other animals.  

The report reveals a big disparity between chicken production and other industries. Based on this new FDA data, and USDA livestock production statistics, beef, pork and turkey producers are using more than ten times the quantity of medically important antibiotics per pound of meat produced than chicken producers.

“We’ve seen very little progress when it comes to reducing the overuse of medically important antibiotics in cows and pigs,” said Halloran.  “Other countries have demonstrated that we can dramatically reduce the use of these life-saving medications when meat and poultry producers adopt practices that don’t rely on drugs to keep animals healthy.  It’s time for beef and pork producers to adopt more responsible antibiotics practices so we can preserve the effectiveness of these critical drugs far into the future.”  

The chicken industry has made strong progress in recent years in reducing its antibiotic use.   Both Perdue and Tyson, the two largest chicken producers in the U.S., have reduced antibiotics use significantly. Much of this change has been driven by consumer demand, and by public pressure on fast food chains to use their massive buying power to encourage reduced antibiotic use.  

The Chain Reaction III report released by Consumers Union and other groups in September found that more than half of the top 25 chain restaurants in the U.S., including McDonald’s, Subway and KFC have taken steps to restrict the routine use of antibiotics in the production of the chicken they serve.  Few chains, however, have made commitments to limit antibiotic use in beef and pork.  

The 14 percent drop in antibiotics sales reported by the FDA between 2015 and 2016 brings the sales volume close to what was reported for 2011.  According to the FDA, sales declined for each individual drug class.  Tetracycline represented the largest portion of antibiotics sales and declined by 15 percent during the period.   Medically important antibiotics made up 60 percent of overall sales, while non-medically important antibiotics made up the other 40 percent.  

An estimated seventy percent of the medically important antibiotics in the U.S. are sold for use in livestock.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other leading medical experts agree that the routine use of antibiotics for meat production threatens public health by contributing to the creation and spread of drug resistant superbugs.   CDC reports that at least 23,000 people a year die from antibiotic resistant infections.   


Contact:  Michael McCauley, mmccauley@consumer.org, 415-902-9537 (cell) or 415-431-6747, ext. 7606 or David Butler, dbutler@consumer.org, 202-462-6262