A Plan To Reduce Antibiotic (Ab)use By The Global Meat Industry
A policy proposal for addressing the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threaten human and animal health worldwide
Human addiction to eating meat creates antibiotic resistant “superbugs”
Although most people think of human medical uses when they think of antibiotics, 80% of all antibiotics are in fact consumed by food animals, and this is where our problems start. First, because the total global food animal biomass far exceeds the total global human biomass, there are correspondingly more opportunities for antibiotic resistant bacteria to pop up in animals.
There are noteworthy differences in how antibiotics are used in livestock compared to people, and this has several far-reaching implications. People generally use a short course of antibiotics targeted to treat a specific bacterial infection, whereas food animals are fed antimicrobials as a general sort of “tonic” that acts as a cheap but powerful growth promoter and, as an added benefit, also serves to reduce illnesses resulting from severe overcrowding and filthy conditions. Thus, antibiotics are typically provided to food animals consistently in their food, but in low doses — and this is the perfect situation for driving the evolution of antibiotic resistance in microbes.
The combination of a growth promoter with disease prophylaxis are the main reasons underlying antibiotic abuse by the global meat industry, a practice that initially started in the 1950s. As use of antimicrobial-laced livestock feed becomes ever more entrenched worldwide, it portends increasingly dire health consequences for both livestock and people.
Thomas Van Boeckel and co-authors of a paper published recently in the journal, Science (ref), propose a three-pronged public policy designed to deal with runaway antibiotic abuse by the global meat industry:
- Enforce global “caps” on antibiotic use
- Enact a global strategy to reduce meat consumption
- Implement a global user fee on veterinary antimicrobial use
In their paper, Dr. Van Boeckel and his colleagues discuss the combined economics and effectiveness of their proposed three-part policy approach.
Enforce a global cap on antibiotic use
According to the new report, enforcement of effective global limits or “caps” on antibiotic use could reduce antimicrobial use between 9% and 80% by 2030 in food animals, compared with projected business-as-usual targets based upon current practices.
Dr. Van Boeckel and his colleagues based those numbers on veterinary antimicrobial sales from public records obtained from 38 countries. They estimated that global consumption of antibiotics by livestock was 131,109 tons in 2013. Just to give you an idea of what this translates into, the global meat industry’s antibiotic abuse for 2013 alone is roughly twice the mass of the US Navy’s hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, which has been mentioned often in the American news media recently because it has remained moored at Norfolk for more than a week after Hurricane Maria ravaged the US Territory of Puerto Rico. Using these records, Dr. Van Boeckel and his colleagues predicted that global antibiotic consumption will reach or surpass 200,235 tons by 2030 — the equivalent of adding yet another USNS Comfort to the fleet.
Not all countries bear equal responsibility for this developing global health crisis: some European countries manage highly productive meat industries despite using less than half the current global average of antimicrobials per kilogram of animal. For example, China is the largest consumer of antimicrobials, both in absolute terms (Figure 1) and in relative terms (i. e.; per kilogram of animal food product) — consuming 40 times more antibiotics than does Norway per kilogram of animal food products, which include meat, dairy and eggs. For this reason, China could potentially play a powerful leadership role in addressing this health issue.
Reduce worldwide meat consumption
Without doubt, a global strategy to reduce meat consumption must also be put into action. Reducing worldwide meat consumption to just 40 grams per person per day — the equivalent of one standard sized hamburger — would reduce antimicrobial abuse in food animals by 66% (Figure 2; target 2A), which is comparable with what could be achieved by limiting antimicrobial use (Figure 2; targets 1A and 1B).
It is important to point out that, although 40 grams (1.4 ounces) of meat per day is more than adequate for good health and nutrition, Americans are the champion meat consumers, currently devouring an average of 260 grams (9.2 ounces) of meat per person per day (ref).
Ok, I can already hear the anguished howls of devoted carnivores (and devoted carnivore wannabes living in emerging economies) as they contemplate the horrors of a daily meat portion consisting of just 40 grams. To appease these people, let’s consider a less drastic — and probably more realistic albeit far less healthy dietary option: a reduction in daily meat consumption to 165 grams per person. Even such a small reduction could still lower global antimicrobial abuse by 22% (Figure 2; target 2B). Besides substantial reductions in antibiotic resistant microbes, other perks of a reduced meat diet include improvements in people’s overall health, and many, significant, environmental benefits (ref), as well as a meaningful reduction in global animal cruelty that accompanies intensive meat, dairy and egg production.
Implement and enforce a global user fee on veterinary antimicrobial use
Third and last, the authors propose implementing a global user fee on veterinary antimicrobials so it suddenly becomes much more expensive to provide antimicrobial-laced feeds to livestock. A fee of, say, 50% of the current price paid for veterinary antimicrobials could reduce global consumption by 31% (Figure 2; target 3C).
If such a fee is implemented, enforcement is always an issue, especially in emerging economies. So to avoid additional burdens of surveillance and enforcement costs along with other issues, this user fee could be levied at the point of manufacture or on wholesale purchases, since there are only a handful of antibiotics manufacturers and their sales are easier to track.
These user fees could be dedicated to providing essential funding for research and development of desperately needed new antibiotics. If that proposed 50% user fee was enacted, for example, it would generate annual revenues between US$ 1.7–4.6 billion. Since it costs an estimated US$ 1 billion to develop just one new antimicrobial drug (ref), this user fee could be an essential shot in the arm for the development of new antimicrobials.
Will our meat addiction allow “superbugs” to make our decisions for us?
It’s plain to any thinking person that global antibiotic abuse by the meat industry will decline and probably stop in the near future. The question is whether this will occur due to enactment of thoughtful international policies that address this problem or because bacteria will evolve resistance to everything that we could possibly throw at them. Hopefully, policymakers are reading this paper and will use it as a guide for action to solve this growing crisis — before “superbugs” take away all our choices.
Thomas P. Van Boeckel, Emma E. Glennon, Dora Chen, Marius Gilbert, Timothy P. Robinson, Bryan T Grenfell, Simon A. Levin, Sebastian Bonhoeffer, and Ramanan Laxminarayan (2017). Reducing global antimicrobial use in food animals, Science, 357(6358):1350–1352 | doi:10.1126/science.aao1495
David Tilman and Michael Clark (2014). Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health, Nature 515:518–522 | doi:10.1038/nature13959
Ramanan Laxminarayan (2014). Antibiotic effectiveness: Balancing conservation against innovation, Science 345(6202):1299–1301 | doi:10.1126/science.1254163
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Originally published at Forbes on 29 September 2017.