A policy proposal for addressing the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threaten human and animal health worldwide

Gatis Gribusts via a Creative Commons license

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:

  1. Enforce global “caps” on antibiotic use
  2. Enact a global strategy to reduce meat consumption
  3. 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…