Beginning with an assumption that “antibiotic use in food animals contributes to the emergence of resistant bacteria that may affect humans,” the Government Accounting Office has asked the Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture for more data on antibiotic use and resistance.

According to the GAO report, HHS and USDA have collected some data on antibiotic use in food animals and on resistant bacteria in animals and retail meat. However, these data lack crucial details necessary to examine trends and understand the relationship between use and resistance. Specifically, the report says, although the FDA collects data from drug companies on antibiotics sold for use in food animals, the data do not show what species antibiotics are used in or whether they are used to treat disease or improve growth rates.

The report also says USDA’s producer surveys provide just a snapshot of antibiotic use practices, and data on resistance are not representative of food animals and retail meat across the nation.”Without detailed use data and representative resistance data, agencies cannot examine trends and understand the relationship between use and resistance,” the GAO says.

Other findings include:

HHS and USDA have taken some steps to research alternatives to current antibiotic use practices and educate producers and veterinarians on appropriate use of antibiotics. However, the extent of these efforts is unclear because the agencies have not assessed their effectiveness.

Since 1995, the EU, including Denmark, banned the use of antibiotics to promote growth in animals, among other actions. Some of their experiences may offer lessons for the United States. For example, in Denmark, antibiotic use in animals initially decreased following a series of policy changes. The prevalence of resistant bacteria declined in food animals and retail meat in many instances, but a decline in humans has only occasionally been documented.

Based on its findings, the GAO recommends HHS and USDA take the following steps:

  • Identify and evaluate approaches to collecting detailed data on antibiotic use in animals and use these data to evaluate FDA’s voluntary strategy.
  • Collect more representative data on resistance.
  • Assess previous efforts on alternatives to identify where more research is needed.

HHS and USDA agreed with GAO’s recommendations, according to the report.

Read the full report from GAO.