Antibiotics and Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria in Meat: Not Getting Better

A few days ago, the Food and Drug Administration released two important documents related to antibiotic use in livestock raising, and what the results of that antibiotic use are. I’d say that they released them quietly, except, when it comes to this issue, every release seems to be quiet, never accompanied by the press releases or briefings that other divisions of the FDA use to publicize their news.

The two documents are the 2011 Retail Meat Report from the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, or NARMS, and the 2011 Summary Report on Antimicrobials Sold or Distributed for Use in Food-Producing Animals, which is known for short as ADUFA, after the 2008 Animal Drug User Fee Act that mandated the data be collected.

These two reports capture almost all the data we receive from the federal government about antibiotic use in livestock production (which is not the same thing as “all the data the federal government possesses” — there is evidence they receive more than they release). So their annual release is an important indicator for whether antibiotic use in meat production, and antibiotic resistance in meat, are trending up or down.

The news does not appear to be good.

Taking ADUFA first, because the amount of data in it is smaller: Here are the numbers — all the numbers — from the recent report:

As you can see, the FDA reports drug purchases in totals by drug family — there are no breakdowns by individual drug or by the species the drugs are used in — and does not sum the purchases into a grand total. So doing the math for them: Just in the U.S. (that is, ignoring export sales), the 2011 total was 13.5 million kilograms, or 29.85 million pounds. This compares to 13.06 million in 2009 (28.8 million pounds) and 13.24 million kilograms (29.19 million pounds) in 2010. In other words, the trend is rising, and the 2011 numbers were higher than in the previous two years.

Industry has objected in the past that it isn’t fair to include ionophores in the total, because they are not used in human medicine, and therefore whether resistance arises as a result of their use isn’t important for human health. In that case: 20.56 million pounds in 2009, 20.76 million in 2010, and 20.76 million again this year. The numbers rose, and then held steady; they are not declining.

The Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming (of the Pew Charitable Trusts) has been tracking this data year to year, and this year retrieved some additional data from the human side of the pharma industry to use as a comparison. They found that human-use antibiotics totaled 3.5 million kilograms, or 7.7 million pounds, in 2011. Here’s what that looks like, via their graphic (original is here):

Here’s an important additional bit of math: Based on data from the first ADUFA report containing the 2009 data, it has become common to say that animal-use antibiotics represent 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. — that is, four times as much as human medicine does. If the Pew data is correct (it comes from IMS Health, a widely used pharma-industry analysis firm), then that math remains correct: 29.85 million is 3.87 times 7.7 million.

So what is this antibiotic use producing, in 2011? The NARMS report released this week fills us in. Again, the news isn’t good. A small sample, from the report highlights:

  • Salmonella isolates from 44.9 percent of retail chicken samples were resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics
  • Salmonella on “more than 27 percent” of retail chicken showed resistance to five or more classes of antibiotics
  • Salmonella on 50.3 percent of ground turkey was resistant to three or more drug classes
  • Some Salmonella on turkey was resistant to six drug classes.

It’s worth noting that this continued antibiotic use, and continued and rising appearance of resistant bacteria on meat, is happening as the FDA has abandoned attempting to regulate livestock producers’ use of antibiotics, and has switched to a voluntary approach. Given the trend, I think it’s worth asking how well that voluntary approach is going to work.

For more analysis of these reports, take a look at Tom Philpott at Mother Jones (who is even more skeptical than I am) and at the house blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has been pursuing the FDA in court in an attempt to get antibiotic use dialed back.



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