World must act on antibiotics in meat, says report

Drug use by the livestock industry must be curbed or banned to prevent the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, says government report

Pig and chicken formed of colourful antibiotic pills on black background

Antibiotic use by the meat and livestock industry poses a real threat to human health and should be pared back or stopped. That’s the conclusion of a government-commissioned report by the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance (RAR) that says at least half of all antibiotics are now being used on animals. The findings come in the wake of the discovery that bacteria resistant to colistin, the most widely used of the “last-resort” polymyxin antibiotics, have been found in both China and Denmark.

“Excessive and inappropriate” use of antibiotics in livestock – including to help animals gain weight and to stop infections developing – needs to be restricted to an agreed level or stopped entirely, according to the RAR’s report Antimicrobials in Agriculture and the Environment: Reducing Unnecessary Use and Waste.

Overuse of antibiotics, both in animals and humans, leads to bacteria developing a resistance to the drugs. Such infections could kill an extra 10 million people annually by 2050 if the issue is not addressed, according to the panel of experts on the review team.

The report – a review of 139 studies on the use of antibiotics in agriculture – indicates there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that humans may be able to contract antibiotic-resistant infections through eating raw or undercooked meat. Of those studies, 100 found a link between animals being fed antibiotics and humans developing a resistance to those same drugs; a mere 7 established no connection.

As a result, the report says: “countries need to come together and agree to restrict, or even ban, the use of antibiotics in animals that are important for humans.”

The chairman of the RAR, Jim O’Neill, said the scientific research underlined the need to cut back on antibiotic use in agriculture, and highlighted the absurdity of squandering drugs vital to human health on improving the quality and quantity of animals destined to be killed and eaten.

“I find it staggering that in many countries, most of the consumption of antibiotics is in animals rather than humans,” he said. “This creates a big resistance risk for everyone, which was highlighted by the recent Chinese finding of resistance to colistin, an important last-resort antibiotic that has been used extensively in animals.”

Colistin is used by doctors to treat bacterial infections that have not responded to other antibiotics. Last month a gene for resistance to colistin, mcr-1, was discovered in infected livestock, meat and humans in China, leading scientists to warn it could become a global problem. Last week, Danish researchers checking a bacterial DNA database found mcr-1 and other antibiotic-resistant genes in one human and five bacterial samples from meat imported from Germany.

“It’s time for policymakers to act on this,” added O’Neill. “We need to radically reduce global use of antibiotics, and to do this we need world leaders to agree to an ambitious target to lower levels, along with restricting the use of antibiotics important to humans.”

Read the RAR report