The Field Report: FDA Data Shows a Worrisome Increase in Antibiotic Use in Animal Agriculture | Civil Eats

The Field Report: FDA Data Shows a Worrisome Increase in Antibiotic Use in Animal Agriculture

Plus, more climate-smart commodities, a state-level push for free school meals, and more.

a pig eating antibiotic-filled feed in a hog barn

Seven years after the federal government created a National Action Plan to fight antibiotic resistance, sales of medically important antibiotics in animal agriculture are still trending in the wrong direction.

Rather than a steady decline year over year, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) data released yesterday shows that while overall antibiotic sales for livestock decreased about 1 percent across the board in 2021 compared to 2020, significant increases occurred in the systems that produce Americans’ favorite meats.

Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) has pointed to antibiotic resistance as one of the biggest existing threats to public health and food security, and in the U.S., antibiotic-resistant bacteria cause about 2.8 million infections and 35,000 deaths annually. Animal agriculture is key to addressing the problem, since the industry uses far more antibiotics than human healthcare does.

“It’s just another nail in the coffin of a failed FDA approach to stewardship of antibiotics in the livestock sector,” said David Wallinga, a senior health officer at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) who has been closely tracking the issue for years. “Every data point underscores how clearly it has failed, especially since 2017.”

After a peak in 2016, regulatory changes and a consumer-driven shift away from the use of medically important antibiotics in chicken production led to a 28 percent drop in livestock antibiotic sales overall, but sales in cattle and pork have mostly stayed steady or increased slightly since (aside from a slight drop between 2019 and 2020). Somewhat surprisingly, this year’s data shows antibiotic sales for use in chicken shot up 12 percent, while sales for cattle were up 1 percent and sales for pork were up 3 percent.

But Wallinga said chicken is not the issue, given the differences in volume. For example, nearly 2.5 million kilograms (kg) of antibiotics were sold for use in cattle, compared to about 158,000 kg for chicken. And the bigger uptick in chicken only resulted in an increase in 17,000 kg, compared to an increase of 78,000 kg in pork. Plus, he said, the problem is rooted in the overall volume.

“If you’re looking across food production as a whole, that’s what really matters,” he said. “Overall numbers are what drive selection for resistant bacteria.”

In the past, industry officials have attributed increases in sales data to increases in the number and size of animals produced. But data from 2021 shows production of both pork and chicken actually went down in 2021 compared to the previous year, suggesting that more antibiotics were sold for use in fewer animals.

That squares with an NRDC issue brief published last month. In it, Wallinga and his team found that in 2020, the U.S. rate of antibiotic use was nearly twice as high as the overall rate reported in the European Union. And between 2017 and 2020, intensity of use went up in cattle, pig, and turkeys. Only in chicken did it go down.

Europe has also been more successful in reducing overall antibiotic use in animal agriculture, achieving a nearly 43 percent decline in overall sales between 2011 and 2020, compared to 27 percent in the U.S. To follow Europe’s lead, NRDC researchers say that the U.S. should begin more closely tracking antibiotic use on farms and set ambitious, measurable targets to reduce use. And advocates have long pushed for a policy change that would ban the routine use of medically important antibiotics for disease prevention in healthy animals, arguing that use should be restricted to disease treatment as it is in most cases in human medicine.

At the end of the day, Wallinga said another development last week points to the fact that the agency is dragging its feet and doesn’t want to “get into these issues.” The Reagan-Udall Foundation released its outside evaluation of the FDA’s food programs, which FDA Commissioner Robert Califf commissioned in July. But despite urging from NRDC and other groups, the evaluation did not include assessing the division within the FDA tasked with monitoring antibiotic use in livestock. “These are food animals, but somehow they’re not part of the food supply?” he asked.

Read More:
Is the U.S. Doing Enough to Address the Meat Industry’s Role in Antibiotic Resistance?
Ads for Livestock Antibiotics Fly in the Face of FDA Rules. Will the Agency Step In?
Could a Rapid Test for Antibiotics Bring Transparency to the Meat Supply Chain?

Grading the FDA (on other fronts). In that report on FDA’s food programs, the expert panel concluded that issues with culture, structure, and a lack of adequate resources seriously hinder “the ability of the Human Foods Program to carry out its mission efficiently and effectively.” FDA Commissioner Califf commissioned the report after the agency was criticized for failing to prevent and efficiently address the infant formula crisis, which killed two infants and has resulted in ongoing shortages that affected millions of families. An April Politico investigation also found that the agency has been failing to maintain food safety and nutrition standards due to dysfunction within and inattention to the food side of its operations.

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While the evaluation was presented as an outside audit, the Reagan-Udall Foundation is set up as independent organization but is closely linked to and partially funded by the FDA and receives funding from many of the country’s largest food, formula, and pharmaceutical companies, including Nestlé USA, Kellogg, and Pfizer.

To fix the problems identified in the report, the panel recommended multiple options to change the agency’s structure, from creating an entirely different agency for food separate from drugs, to streamlining divisions that currently handle different aspects of the food program, to appointing a new leader to run the entire food program. It also provided a list of specific ways that Congress could expand FDA’s authorities, including requiring companies to notify the agency when food shortages are anticipated, conducting a routine assessment of ingredients that qualify for the controversial GRAS (generally recognized as safe) designation, and monitoring the use and impacts of the term “healthy” on food labels.

Advocacy groups that have long pushed for changes to how FDA regulates food applauded the report’s release as an important first step and urged the agency to respond with fast action. “We need strengthened leadership and accountability at the FDA to implement a culture of prevention, respond more quickly to problems as they arise, and take timely action on proposed food safety rules and initiatives,” said Brian Ronholm, Consumer Reports’ director of food policy, in a press release.

Read More:
As the Infant Formula Shortage Drags On, Food and Farm Workers Focus on Breastfeeding
Has Our Food Become Safer in the Last 10 Years?

Climate-Smart Commodities, Part 2. On Monday, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited Tuskegee University in Alabama to announce the second round of awards in the USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program. While the first investments announced in September were all large projects awarded $5 to $100 million each for a total of $2.8 billion, the second batch consisted of 71 projects with funding ranging from $250,000 up to $5 million each, for a total of $325 million in funding.

Vilsack described the follow-up as serving small-sized family farms and historically underserved producers, to “ensure full participation in this historic opportunity to transform American agriculture.” Projects highlighted at the event included a Texas initiative to help Hispanic farmers adopt agrivoltaic systems, a tribal project focused on buffalo production, and a Tuskegee-led effort to help small, underserved Southern farms implement agroforestry practices. In total, Vilsack said the climate-smart commodities program now includes 141 projects totaling $3.1 billion. The agency estimates 60,000 farmers will be involved and that the projects could lead to “60 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent reduced,” although how they came to that estimate is unclear.

The announcement came on the heels of an analysis posted by researchers at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) that pointed to a lack of transparency associated with the first round of investments. Since those larger projects each had multiple partners, UCS researchers said it will be impossible to tell who is actually receiving the allocated taxpayer dollars. That information is critical, they said, especially given the fact that many of the partners are wealthy corporations, including Coca-Cola, JBS, and Tyson. The researchers also said the USDA has not provided enough information on how it is defining “climate-smart,” the specific practices employed in each project, or how the agency will measure whether the projects result in real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Some of UCS’ criticisms echoed those of incoming House Agriculture Committee Chair Glenn “GT” Thompson, Jr. (R-Pennsylvania), who has demanded more information from the USDA as to how the money is being spent.

Read More:
The Field Report: Tom Vilsack on How the USDA Can Transform the Food System
Op-Ed: The Flood of Climate Disasters Has the Food System Reeling. It’s Time to Act.

Farm State Shake-Up. Another recent development has implications for farm-and-climate policy. For the past 50 years, the lead-up to presidential elections has started with the Iowa caucuses. But last week, the Democratic National Committee voted to support a Biden administration plan to kick off the party’s 2024 nomination process in South Carolina. While Republicans will still start their process in the Midwest farm state, many political insiders reacted to the news by commenting on how the change might impact federal agricultural policies, since Iowa’s political powerbrokers will likely now hold less sway.

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Iowa voices have been particularly key in pushing for federal support for ethanol, despite growing evidence that suggests the biofuel’s climate impacts may be equal to or greater than fossil fuels. “We’ve enjoyed the opportunity to have the candidates here and help them get educated about agriculture and ethanol,” Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, told the Wall Street Journal. (Of course, Iowa legislators are not the only ones pushing ethanol: Last Thursday, Representatives from Minnesota and Nebraska introduced a House bill that would boost ethanol sales.) If President Biden decides to run for a second term, the move wouldn’t mean much this year but would affect future election cycles.

Read More:
How Corn Ethanol for Biofuel Fed Climate Change
The Trickle-Down Effect of Agriculture in Iowa

Funding for Free Meals. At the state level, the growing fight to secure free meals for all public school students got a major boost last week with an infusion of cash from Tusk Philanthropies’ Solving Hunger. The nonprofit will fund public campaigns intended to drive state lawmakers in New York, Connecticut, Vermont, and North Carolina to make universal school meals permanent. Although free school meals provided at the federal level during the pandemic ended in September, the USDA’s Economic Research Service released data showing that since last March, the percentage of schools participating in federal meal programs fell from 94 percent to 88 percent. The share of schools reporting more than half of students were eating school meals dropped more significantly, from 84 percent to 69 percent.

While a direct line between the end of universal school meals and the decline in numbers is impossible to draw, the challenges that schools cited as preventing higher participation—including getting parents to complete applications for free and reduced meals—suggest a relationship. With action on universal school meals stalled in Washington, many advocates have shifted their energy to states.

Read More:
The Next Chance to Improve School Meal Access Is Coming Up Soon
The Field Report: Are Expiring School Meal Waivers a Looming Catastrophe?

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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