Does Antibiotic Use in Livestock Lead to Resistant Bacteria? WHO Says Yes and Farmers Must Stop

With concerns of antibiotic resistance looming over the human population, the World Health Organization is telling farmers to stop using such drugs on animals intended for the food supply. (Image credit: Erica Woodson)

The issue of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has been part of public dialogue for some time, but the World Health Organization (WHO) recently came out with a more stern warning to farmers who regularly use antibiotics in healthy animals for the purposes of promoting growth and preventing disease.

Using antimicrobial medicines on farm animals is one of the leading causes of the rise of superbugs, resistant to all but the strongest antibiotics. Medical authorities warn that the antibiotics available to treat even relatively minor human diseases are running out because of the rapid rise of such resistance.

Usage of antibiotics for growth and prevention is common practice in Asia and the U.S., as well as some other areas of the world, though it has been banned across Europe.

The WHO reported on Tuesday that in some countries, as much as 80% of antibiotic use is on farm animals. Even in some countries where routine use for enhancing growth is banned, more antibiotics are used on animals than on humans.

In its newest guidelines, the WHO advises against using the most powerful antibiotics in animals for any reason, reserving application solely for humans.

This should apply, according to the WHO, even in cases where an illness has been diagnosed in a food-producing animal. Implementing this could require animals to be quarantined, allowed to die, or for herds to be culled in order to halt the spread of a serious disease rather than attempting to cure it.

The WHO's recommendations were based on new research that found limiting antibiotic use in farm animals resulted in up to a 39 percent decrease in resistant bacteria among livestock populations.

Kazuaki Miyagishima, director of food safety at the WHO, said the links between antibiotic use on farms and risks to human health were clear: “Scientific evidence demonstrates that overuse of antibiotics in animals can contribute to the emergence of antibiotic resistance. The volume of antibiotics used in animals is continuing to increase worldwide, driven by a growing demand for foods of animal origin, often produced through intensive animal husbandry.”

Though it has no authority to implement recommended changes, the WHO is hopeful that national governments will follow its lead.

Restricting our remaining effective antibiotics for human use is crucial because of the lack of alternatives available. “There are very few promising options in the research pipeline” for new antibiotics to replace those that are becoming ineffective because of overuse and resistance, the WHO warned.