Between 2010 and 2030, the global consumption of antibiotics will increase by 67 percent, according to a new study called “Global trends in antimicrobial use in food animals,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Chicken and pork production will be responsible for most of that increase.
By 2030, China and the United States will likely lead the world in animal antibiotic use, but countries like Myanmar, Indonesia, Nigeria, Peru and Vietnam will see the highest projected percentage increases. There, a growing middle class will be looking to add more meat to their diets, so, the study’s authors predict, producers will be looking for ways to increase production as inexpensively as possible.
The scientists behind the study are concerned about the consequences. To better understand them, the authors call for, among other things, an international surveillance network of antibiotics in the livestock sector — and, eventually, the withdrawal of their use as growth promotants in all food animals.
In this country, there is some movement in that direction already. The Food and Drug Administration has asked drug and meat companies to stop feeding antibiotics to livestock for faster growth. That request is strictly voluntary, but it’s the strongest action the FDA has yet taken. The agency has also asked the makers of antibiotics to rewrite their labels to prohibit such use of their products, and the drug makers have agreed to do that by the end of next year.
Consumer pressure is driving some businesses to take action on their own. Perdue has dramatically reduced its use of antibiotics; Tyson launched lines of antibiotic-free chicken and beef. Chick-fil-A is phasing out chicken raised with antibiotics over the next five years. Panera and Chipotle offer antibiotic-free chicken, beef and pork dishes; McDonald’s and Wendy’s intend to start reducing antibiotic use in U.S. chicken offerings. Some of these companies have suggested that their attention will turn to beef in the future, but for now, antibiotic-free chicken is more widely available, and vertical integration in the chicken industry makes these large-scale changes easier.
Still, it’s a small segment of the meat and poultry industries. Antibiotic-free beef, pork and chicken account for only about 5 percent of meat sold in the United States. But that number is growing quickly — market research shows that retail sales of antibiotic-free chicken rose 34 percent in 2013.
And consumers don’t seem to be getting any less interested in this segment. In a 2012 Consumer Reports poll, 82 percent of consumers said they would buy meat raised without antibiotics if it were available where they shopped. Sixty-one percent of consumers indicated they would pay 5 cents or more extra per pound, and 37 percent said they would pay $1 a pound or more extra.
European consumers are also interested, and the European Union has responded more aggressively. In Denmark, for example, antibiotics for growth promotion were outlawed in broiler chickens and adult pigs in 1998 (and in young pigs a year later). More than 10 years after the ban, Danish authorities reported that the law reduced antibiotic consumption by 50 percent, animal health was not compromised, and the added cost per pig for producers was $1.09.
Back here, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) has been fighting for a bill similar to Denmark’s and has introduced it at every congressional session since 2007. She recently announced that she will try again this year.