The use of antibiotics to raise livestock is expected to rise 67 percent worldwide by 2030, according to a report released Monday.
The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined the agricultural use of antibiotics in 228 countries. In 2010, the world used 63,151 tons of antibiotics on farms. In the next 15 years, rates are expected to double in countries like Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
“This rise is likely to be driven by the growth in consumer demand for livestock products in middle-income countries and a shift to large-scale farms where antimicrobials are used routinely,” the researchers wrote. “Our findings call for initiatives to preserve antibiotic effectiveness while simultaneously ensuring food security in low- and lower-middle-income countries.”
Experts say the routine use of antibiotics in agriculture to prevent disease contributes to antibiotic resistance in common bacteria. The World Health Organization has classified the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria as a global crisis.
In the United States, these “superbugs” sicken more than 2 million people a year. Of those, 23,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Eighty percent of antibiotics used in the United States are given to animals meant for human consumption. On some large-scale farms, antibiotics are administered to animals through water and feed.
American Consumers Demand Antibiotic-Free Meat
While developing countries will see an expansion in large-scale farming, consumer demand for antibiotic-free meat is changing the way some U.S. chains are doing business.
More Americans are being picky about what’s in their food, including steering clear of meat that comes from animals given antibiotics.
Sasha Stashwick, senior advocate of food and agriculture for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said the drive is being fueled by 18-to-34-year-olds who are hyperaware of the food they consume.
“There’s a cry from consumers who want the meat we eat to be responsibly raised,” Stashwick told Healthline. “This is the real mainstreaming force in the marketplace. We’re hopefully at or past the tipping point where the industry is headed.”
According to a nationwide poll by Consumer Reports, 61 percent of Americans say they would pay 5 cents or more per pound extra for meat raised without antibiotics.
McDonald’s, home of the Dollar Menu, has become the latest food giant to jump on that bandwagon.
In the company’s first week under new Chief Executive Officer Steve Easterbrook, McDonald’s announced that within the next two years all chicken served at the fast food chain’s 14,000 U.S. locations will come from farms that don’t routinely use antibiotics necessary for human medicine.
Marion Gross, senior vice president of McDonald’s North America supply chain, said sick animals will still be treated with ionophores, a class of antibiotics not used on humans.
“McDonald’s believes that any animals that become ill deserve appropriate veterinary care and our suppliers will continue to treat poultry with prescribed antibiotics, and then they will no longer be included in our food supply,” Gross said in a press release.
Other companies, such as Chipotle, Chik-fil-A, Applegate, and Purdue Farms, have already gone antibiotic-free or have plans to do so. The anti-antibiotic message is incorporated into their marketing, and consumers have responded positively to the idea of paying a little extra money for a little less risk in the food they eat.
“They’re seeing great financial success,” Stashwick, who met with McDonald’s executives on the issue, said. “Their customers want it and they’re really liking it.”
Changing Farm Practices Takes Time
Chicken, Stashwick said, is low-hanging fruit because of chickens’ short lifespans. In addition, the poultry industry is the most vertically integrated — that is, supply chains are owned by the same company that sells the product — of any in U.S. meat production.
“When big buyers like McDonald’s step up, hopefully that accelerates the issue,” Stashwick said. “This is really meaningful to human health.”
Antibiotic use in agriculture plays only a part in the antibiotic resistance epidemic. Nonetheless, critics of these practices, including the NRDC and the Pew Charitable Trusts, have pushed for tighter restrictions on how antibiotics are used in the food supply.
The regulatory agency that oversees the use of antibiotics, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), uses voluntary guidelines to police the issue. The FDA has been challenged in federal court for its lack of enforcement. Critics say the agency has known about the threats to human health of antibiotic use in livestock since 1977.
In the face of loose regulation, experts say consumer attitudes toward antibiotic-free meat continue to help move the issue forward.
Gail Hansen, a veterinarian and expert in Pew’s antibiotic resistance project, called the McDonald’s decision a victory, but she said more work needs to be done.
“We are eager to collaborate with other companies to see this approach extended to beef and pork production,” Hansen said in a statement. “By reining in the use of antibiotics in all animals, we can make significant progress in slowing the threat from superbugs.”