Fri, November 02, 2018   |    Download PDF of this article

The rapid rise of diseases and infections that are resistant to antibiotics is one of the three slow-motion disasters threatening global public health. Heeding a warning by World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Margaret Chan, in 2016 the United Nations General Assembly formally recognized that inappropriate use of antibiotics in animals was a leading cause of rising resistance to antibiotics (AMR). The UN Secretary General established an interagency working group to coordinate efforts to combat AMR. The group is expected to report in September 2018 on progress of three global policies to reduce antibiotic use in food animal production: 1) enforcing regulations to cap antibiotic use; 2) following nutritional guidelines to reduce meat consumption; and 3) imposing a user fee on veterinary use of antibiotics.

All indications are that antibiotic use in animal production is still increasing but varies greatly between countries—from a low of 8 milligrams per population correction unit (or mg/PCU, a kilogram of animal product) in Norway to a high of 318 mg/PCU in China, both major suppliers of aquaculture productions.

Variations in use reflect the effectiveness of policies and the influence of business commitments and consumer demand. The European Union has successfully used policy changes to reduce antibiotic use, while modest reductions in the U.S. have come mostly from consumer demand. Capping antibiotic use at 50 mg/PCU per year—the current global average—could reduce total consumption by 64 percent by 2030. Limiting meat intake to 40 grams per day (about one quick-service burger) could reduce global consumption of antibiotics in food animal production by 66 percent. Average meat consumption in the U.S. is currently 260 grams per day, so achieving this goal would require an 85 percent reduction.

As noted in the 2017 Menus of Change Annual Report, most of the largest U.S. restaurant, hospitality, and foodservice companies have taken on the challenge of AMR in response to consumer demand. Well over half of these companies now have in place commitments to reduce or eliminate antibiotic use in their supply chains in the next few years. Most of these commitments are in the poultry sector, as illustrated by the following example of one of the latest companies to make this commitment. Pollo Tropical, a quick-service restaurant chain with more than 140 outlets in Florida and Georgia as well as franchises throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America, announced in early January 2018 that all chicken products it serves will come from poultry producers certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as “NAE compliant,” meaning “no antibiotics ever.” The poultry industry continues to respond to consumer demand more robustly than the swine and dairy industries, where the continued use of low-dose antibiotics for prophylaxis is a problem. In December 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug

Administration (FDA) released the annual summary report of antibiotics sold or distributed in 2016 for use in food animals. The good news is that antimicrobial sales decreased from 2015 to 2016 by 10 percent, and sales of medically important antimicrobials decreased by 14 percent. In all previous years from 2009 to 2015, sales volumes increased annually, leaving the agricultural sector 9 percent higher in sales of medically important antibiotics since we started tracking sales in 2009. In May 2016, the FDA issued a final rule requiring antimicrobial drug sponsors to provide estimates of sales for major food-producing species (chickens, turkeys, cattle, and swine).

The 2016 summary report also is the first to include species estimates with the caveat that sales data only approximates use data. Having more of the species-specific sales data will clarify the problem and provide the restaurant, hospitality, and foodservice companies information to focus their pressure on the supply chain to reduce antibiotic use.

The December 2017 FDA summary “estimated that 43% of domestic sales of medically important antimicrobials was intended for use in cattle, 37% intended for use in swine, 9% intended for use in turkeys, 6% intended for use in chickens, and 4% intended for use in other species/unknown.” These more detailed data on use by species may help explain where the slow increase in antibiotic use is occurring even as major poultry producers continue to pledge to eliminate low-dose use for prophylaxis.

The past year has been pivotal in other ways as well: 2017 was the first year that an important provision of FDA’s Guidance for Industry #213 went into effect, prohibiting animal producers from buying antibiotics off the shelf at the local feed store for use in feed or water, and calling for voluntary compliance by drug producers to move their antibiotics from over-the-counter to veterinary feed directives or prescription status. Stay tuned for the FDA’s release of the 2017 summary report in late 2018 to see what effects this rule is having on overall as well as species-specific sales volumes. Consumer demand continues to grow for animal products raised without antibiotics, as evidence mounts of the direct links between AMR arising from industrial food animal production and human disease. Industrial producers of poultry are responding, and those who deny the links between use of low-dose antibiotics and human AMR infections have been largely silenced. Purdue states that it now raises 95 percent of its broilers without antibiotics, and Tyson eliminated the use of antibiotics in all of its broiler flocks in 2017, although it continues to use ionophores—antibiotics not used in human medicine but possibly capable of stimulating the emergence of resistance genes to antibiotics used in humans. The swine and beef industries are lagging far behind.


There is a natural link between the problem of AMR caused by using low-dose antibiotics for prophylaxis against the spread of disease in crowded, unhygienic industrial livestock operations and animal welfare practices. Without relying on the crutch of antibiotics, producers must reduce crowding and provide more effective waste management techniques. In doing so, the environment for the animals becomes more humane and healthier, as demonstrated more than a decade ago by changes in the Danish swine industry.

The decision by the Trump administration to withdraw the USDA’s organic livestock and poultry practices final rule was a setback. Most animal welfare and environmental groups had regarded the final rule as a useful first step. Purdue Farms stated in 2017 that it had already met the proposed Organic Animal Welfare standards included in the final rule that the Trump administration pulled back. Purdue’s

“Commitments to Animal Care 2017” is being implemented with more space, more light, longer lights-off rest periods, windows, studies of the role of enrichments (shelter boxes and straw bales for perching), raising and studying slower growing chickens, and moving to controlled-atmosphere stunning. Purdue is responding in part to the pressure from corporate customers like Aramark and Compass Group, which have declared that by 2024 they will only purchase chickens that are raised more humanely (reduced stocking densities and environmental enrichment).

Other positive developments for animal welfare in the past year include: a ruling by the U.S. district court of Utah that Utah’s ag-gag statute was unconstitutional; a January 2018 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals striking down Idaho’s ag-gag law; advocacy by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Friends of the Earth, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and others for more research on animal welfare to be included in the next Farm Bill; and Cargill and Smithfield recommitting to the complete end of gestation crate use in swine production by 2027.

Chefs and foodservice operators can play a vital role by sourcing their animal products from producers who raise their animals without the use of low-dose antibiotics for growth promotion or disease prevention. Fish and seafood should be included in any antibiotic reduction policies. Operators also need to carefully monitor progress in their supply chains and ask for regular updates on changes that suppliers are making to achieve long-term commitments to reduce antibiotic use.

The leading seller of chicken in the U.S., Chickfil-A, remains committed to serving only chicken raised without antibiotics by 2019. Burger King, Tim Horton, and Wendy’s joined McDonald’s in 2017 in serving only chicken from growers who don’t use antibiotics that are important in human medicine. KFC, the last major holdout in the retail sale of chicken raised with antibiotics, announced in April 2017 that it would only serve chicken raised without medically important antibiotics by the end of 2018.

The foodservice industry, through its sourcing decisions, is pressuring producers to restrict the use of low-dose antibiotics in animal husbandry. The poultry industry is responding more than the pork, dairy, and beef sectors—areas where the foodservice industry could push harder for animal products raised without the use of medically important antibiotics.

Consumers are asking for more and more transparency from the people who produce and cook their food. Because of the goodwill those disclosures tend to generate, food companies and operations of all sizes have been particularly effective at communicating their purchasing policies when it comes to antibiotics and animal welfare. To educate their customers fully on such issues, however, and in turn impact their overall purchasing decisions, operators should be knowledgeable on the issues of antibiotic resistant bacteria contaminating meat and train their staff to provide explanations as well, particularly if the price of a meal or product is affected and consumers need to understand why they might need to pay more.


Antibiotic use may finally be declining after many years of continued increase as commitments made by major restaurant foodservice companies have influenced the livestock industry. Species-specific data for 2018 and 2019 should confirm whether the decline is a true trend.


  • The negative impact of antibiotic use in industrial food animal production on the global problem of antimicrobial resistance is now well established, and reducing unnecessary antibiotic use is a priority for the UN and WHO.
  • Consumer demand in the U.S. continues to move the foodservice industry and some producers, notably the poultry industry, to raise animals without medically important antibiotics and, consequently, with increased attention to animal welfare.
  • Antibiotic use may finally be declining after many years of continued increase as commitments made by major restaurant foodservice companies have influenced the livestock industry. Species-specific data for 2018 and 2019 should confirm whether the decline is a true trend.