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Antibiotic Use On Farms Is Up, Despite Promises To Kick The Drugs

Cattle graze in a field near Sacramento, Calif. California Gov. Jerry Brown, along with many health advocacy groups, has called the overuse of antibiotics "an urgent public health problem." Rich Pedroncelli/AP hide caption

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Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Cattle graze in a field near Sacramento, Calif. California Gov. Jerry Brown, along with many health advocacy groups, has called the overuse of antibiotics "an urgent public health problem."

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

If you go by their declarations and promises, meat producers are drastically cutting back on the use of antibiotics to treat their poultry, pigs and cattle. Over the past year, one big food company after another has announced plans to stop using these drugs.

But if you go by the government's data on drugs sold to livestock producers, it's a different story.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, which compiles these numbers, sales of antibiotics for use on the farm increased in 2014, just as they had for most years before that.

And most alarming to public health advocates, sales of antibiotics important in human medicine went up three percent from 2013 to 2014, the FDA found. That's just slightly less than the five-year trend.

In addition to treating sick animals, meat producers use antibiotics to prevent disease and also to get animals to grow faster. The FDA has taken steps to stop the use of these drugs for growth promotion purposes by the end of 2017.

The FDA, and a lot of scientists and health advocates, are concerned that the livestock industry's excessive use of antibiotics will raise the risk that bacteria will become resistant to these drugs, and bacteria carrying those resistance genes could then infect people.

Growing pressure from consumers around this issue has prompted several Big Food companies to pledge to reduce their reliance on antibiotics or announce reductions they've already made. Among them are the giant agribusinesses Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms and Foster Farms and restaurant chains like McDonalds, Chick-fil-A and Subway. Many of those companies made commitments in 2015, so reductions in antibiotic use by their suppliers may not be reflected in the latest FDA data from 2014.

As in previous years, a class of older antibiotics called tetracyclines dominated the statistics on antibiotic use. Tetracyclines accounted for 70 percent of all "medically important" antibiotics used in animal agriculture. Tetracyclines are no longer considered first-line drugs in human medicine. But sales of other classes of antibiotics, including widely used human drugs such as cephalosporins and macrolides, also increased.

Public health groups that have demanded the industry to curb antibiotic use say the latest data confirms that more regulation is still needed.

"There is no indication that FDA's change in policy has yet resulted in any meaningful reductions on antibiotic sales and usage in food animal production," Susan Vaughn Grooters, a policy analyst for Keep Antibiotics Working, a coalition of advocacy groups, said in a statement. "As the coalition has been saying for years, FDA must set clear targets for the reduction in antibiotic use. Otherwise, industry will continue to conduct business as usual, while the crisis of resistance continues to loom large and consumers pay the price."