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Food companies need to take note: Antibiotic use is dropping

McDonald's announced recently that it aims to lessen the use of medically important antibiotics in the cattle supplying its beef. Hurrah for that press release, but farmers and ranchers have an important response for one of their premier vendors: It's already happening in a big way. Just ask the Food and Drug Administration.


In a major news release, McDonald's said it plans to partner "with supplying beef producers ... to measure and understand current usage of antibiotics across a diverse, global supply chain." That examination will then lead to reduction targets to be set by the end of 2020, and reporting progress on those goals will begin in 2022. Overall, McDonald's plans to implement this plan across its top 10 markets, which cover about 85 percent of the company's global beef supply chain.

 
McDonald's announced the move on its website, which also includes a handful of statements praising the move. Lance Price, director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health, said he hopes "the entire beef industry will follow McDonald's leadership."

But here is what you really need to know: Usage of medically important antibiotics in food production has fallen sharply in the wake of new restrictions on how farms can employ the drugs, the FDA says.

Sales and distribution of medically important antimicrobials dropped 33 percent between 2016 and 2017 and have declined 41 percent since 2015, the peak year for usage, according to FDA data released last month.

"The sales trends reflected by the 2017 report are very encouraging, and I'm pleased to see that the sales and distribution of these antimicrobial drugs has declined significantly the past two years," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said. He said he hopes that the decline will continue.

Gottlieb noted that 2017 was the first year medically important antimicrobials "were no longer allowed to be used for growth promotion and could only be obtained through a veterinarian's order."  FDA's Guidance #213 was intended to end the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion.

Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian for the National Pork Producers Council, said the numbers are in line with what her industry expected.

"We were very much expecting to see a decrease just from anecdotal data we were hearing from the field," she said, pointing to decreases prior to the implementation of the new guidance through industry programs.

The overall reduction also points to other methods of disease prevention. Wagstrom pointed to vaccination programs and changes within production systems as practices get underway to decrease antibiotic use, but antibiotics will be hard to eliminate entirely.

"I don't know how low we can go," she said. "We continue to look at what uses are necessary ... there will continue to be some decreases.

"You've got to realize, we're also having these decreases in the face of a growing swine herd," Wagstrom added. "So as our numbers of animals increase, it makes it much harder to decrease use just because we've got more animals that are at risk."

The FDA report relies upon sales data provided by drug manufacturers and does not track actual use of the products. Some drugs may be purchased and never administered, while others may be purchased and administered in later years depending upon the shelf life.

Ashley Peterson, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Chicken Council, said an estimated 5 percent of the 2017 sales and distribution was intended for chickens, a 47 percent decrease.

"Although sales data does not have a direct impact on human health or antimicrobial resistance, this new data reflects a significant reduction in sales and distribution of medically important antibiotics across animal agriculture," Peterson said.

Kathy Simmons, chief veterinarian for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said the beef sector has been promoting antibiotic stewardship "for decades" and "will continue to take a leadership role on this issue" including collaborative work with the FDA.

"Antimicrobial drugs are used as needed to prevent, control, and treat diseases in cattle and are only one tool that producers can use to keep their herds healthy," she said.

Tetracyclines are still the most widely used class of antibiotics in animals that is also important in human medicine, but it has also shown the steepest decline, with usage falling by 40 percent in 2017. Some types of tetracyclines were used for growth promotion, which is now prohibited.

Despite the decline in usage, tetracyclines accounted for 64 percent of the sales of medically important antibiotics for food production in 2017. Forty-five percent of that class was sold for use in hogs, 44 percent for cattle.

The news comes as a cadre of meatpackers, farm organizations, and companies announce a new framework after a two-year dialogue moderated by the Farm Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts. The framework is light on measurable specifics, but calls for demonstrated improvement in areas such as disease prevention and record keeping.

The stakeholders say they want to "foster and validate the continuous improvement of science-based and validated stewardship practices, and to implement best practices throughout the animal production system."


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