The sale and distribution of antibiotics approved for use in food-producing animals in the U.S. decreased by 10 percent from 2015 to 2016, a U.S. FDA (FDA) report said on December 7.
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It was the first decline in year-to-year sales since the FDA began collecting the data in 2009, according to food and consumer health groups.
For years scientists have warned that the regular use of antibiotics to promote growth and prevent illness in healthy farm animals fuels dangerous, antibiotic-resistant “superbug” infections in people.
Major U.S. food companies including McDonald‘s and Tyson Foods have stepped up efforts to curtail, and in some cases eliminate, antibiotics in their products.
“Actions speak louder than words, and the most action we’ve seen on antibiotics has come from food companies,” said Matthew Wellington, Antibiotics Program Director of public interest campaigning group U.S. PIRG. “We’re cheering this good news.”
Last month, the World Health Organization urged farmers to completely stop using antibiotics to enhance growth and prevent disease in healthy animals.
An estimated 70 percent of the kinds of antibiotics that are also used to fight human infections and in surgery are sold in the U.S. for use in meat production.
In 2016, sales and distribution of those medically important antibiotics for food production fell 14 percent, the FDA said.
Medically important antimicrobials accounted for 60 percent of the domestic sales of all antimicrobials approved for use in farm animals in 2016, the agency said.
The FDA’s data show chicken accounting for 6 percent of medically important antibiotic sales, with swine at 37 percent and cattle at 43 percent.
Avinash Kar, senior attorney at environmental activist group the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the overall decline offers a “glimmer of hope” that the growing epidemic of drug-resistant infections can be beaten.
While Kar attributed the progress to significant changes undertaken by the chicken industry, he said the pork and beef sectors lag behind.
Tyson Foods, the nation’s leading meat producer, this year became the world’s largest producer of no-antibiotic-ever chicken, the company said in an e-mail to Reuters.
Tyson said it was working with independent farmers to reduce human-use antibiotics from its beef and pork supply chain.