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Antibiotic Use in Agriculture: Last Year's News and This Year's Updates

As it should have, COVID-19 dominated medical efforts in 2021, but in addition to our coronavirus work, PIRG kept up the good fight in other crucial battles to protect public health. Our crusade against antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” which could cause the next pandemic, had its ups and downs throughout the last year. As 2022 starts , it’s a good time to reflect on the biggest news on antibiotic resistance, and look forward.

News from 2021 Antibiotic sales dip, but only slightly The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its much-anticipated annual report, the 2020 Summary Report on Antimicrobials Sold or Distributed for Use in Food-Producing Animals, in mid-December. It shows that sales of medically important antibiotics for use in cattle, swine and poultry dropped only 3% between 2019-2020 after increasing the two prior years. Overall sales dropped 27% from 2011 through 2020, a welcome reduction, but in order to meaningfully address antibiotic resistance we need to see at least a 50 percent reduction from those levels. That would put the U.S. on par with actions already taken in the United Kingdom and the European Union. Unfortunately, the 2020 data shows efforts to reduce antibiotic use have stalled. The FDA report highlights how well the chicken industry is doing versus other meat producers. Out of all medically important antibiotics sold for agricultural use, chicken production accounts for 2%, compared to 41% for both cattle and swine, and 12% for turkey. Report shows livestock sales of medically important antibiotics are double those for humans Overuse and misuse of antibiotics in any context can lead to the development and proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. NRDC and the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy released a joint analysis that compared sales of medically important antibiotics in the United States for use in livestock production and human medicine. It showed that antibiotic sales for use in human medicine have stayed relatively consistent since 2009, even decreasing slightly in 2017. The combined sales of medically important antibiotics for pigs and cattle are 55% higher than sales of those same drugs in human medicine. Overall, medically important drug sales for livestock are nearly double those for human medicine. Wendy’s commits to cut routine use of medically important antibiotics With encouragement from PIRG and the Antibiotics Off the Menu coalition, Wendy’s committed to end all routine use of medically important antibiotics in its meat supplies by the end of 2030. Although the company should aim to achieve the goal more quickly, Wendy’s commitment to a timeline is a major step in the right direction. Looking forward to 2022 Major progress in the European Union The European Union’s legislation eliminating routine antibiotic use in farming went into effect at the start of 2022. The new regulation restricts meat producers from routinely giving animals antibiotics to compensate for poor living conditions, and from using them to prevent disease in healthy animals (except in special circumstances where risk of infection is high). The EU’s action to combat antibiotic resistance sets an important example that we hope the United States will emulate. Holding McDonald’s accountable to its commitment In 2018, McDonald’s committed to set reduction targets for antibiotic use in its beef supply chains by the end of 2020. That deadline came and went with no progress reported, so PIRG launched an effort last year to encourage McDonald’s to fulfill its commitment. We’ve mobilized McDonald’s consumers, health professionals and other stakeholders to urge the company to move forward, including a letter signed by over 120 healthcare professionals and another signed by leading consumer, health and food groups. Still, no progress. As 2022 moves forward, we will continue to hold the fast food giant accountable to its promise to reduce antibiotic use in its beef supply chain. As an industry leader, action by McDonald’s should prompt the fast food industry to help end routine antibiotic use in beef production. Our mission: preserve our life-saving medicines Our mission is to preserve the efficacy of our life-saving antibiotics. We’re going to do that in 2022 by getting major meat buyers on board and using that momentum to pass lasting policy change. We’ll mobilize consumers and demonstrate to fast food companies -- as well as elected officials -- that people want food raised without the overuse of antibiotics. We’ll raise visibility about the risks of antibiotic resistance, and work closely with health professionals and farmers to make the case for better antibiotic stewardship in our food system. This new year is going to be a good one. We’ve come a long way on this issue over the last 6 years, but we have still longer to go.

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