FDA report shows small decline in antibiotic sales for livestock in 2021

Young chickens in barn

USDA / Bob Nichols

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported today that sales of medically important antibiotics for use in food-producing animals fell by less than 1% from 2020 through 2021.

The latest summary report from the FDA shows that more than 5.9 million kilograms (kg) of medically important antibiotics were sold for use in livestock (chicken, turkey, cattle, swine, and other, minor food-producing species) in 2021, down from just over 6 million kg in 2020. Medically important antibiotics— those drugs that are also used in human medicine—accounted for 54% of all the antibiotics sold for food-producing animals.

Swine, cattle account for 83% of antibiotics

Overall, swine accounted for 42% of domestic antibiotic sales for livestock, followed by cattle (41%), turkey (11%), chicken (3%), and minor food-producing species (3%). Tetracyclines accounted for 65% of all sales, followed by penicillins (10%), macrolides (9%), aminoglycosides (6%) sulfonamides (5%), lincosamides (3%), cephalosporins (less than 1%), and fluoroquinolones (less than 1%).

The report notes that sales of medically important antibiotics for US livestock have fallen by 33% since 2012 and by 38% since 2015. But much of that decline occurred in 2017, when an FDA rule that ended the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion went into effect.

Since 2017, antibiotic sales for US food-animals have increased by nearly 8%.

In a news release, the FDA said, "While sales data on antimicrobial drug products intended for food-producing animals do not necessarily reflect the actual use of antimicrobial drugs, sales volume observed over time can be a valuable indicator of market trends related to these products. However, when evaluating the progress of ongoing efforts to support judicious use of antimicrobials, it is important to take into account additional information sources."

It is important to take into account additional information sources.

The agency added, "FDA's objective is to slow the development of antimicrobial resistance and preserve the effectiveness of antimicrobials for fighting disease in animals and humans."

Critics decry lack of progress

But advocates for more judicious use of antibiotics in meat production say the latest report is another indication that the FDA is not doing enough to reign in antibiotic use, especially when compared with Europe. Recent data from the European Medicines Agency show that aggregated sales of veterinary antibiotics in 25 European Union/European Economic Area (EU/EEA) countries fell by nearly 47% from 2011 to 2021.

"Despite the clear threat to public health, the FDA's approach is clearly ineffective when it comes to tackling the overuse of our life-saving antibiotics to produce meat," Matt Wellington of the US PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) Education Fund said in a statement. "The FDA should follow the EU's example and set long-term targets for reducing overall use of medically important antibiotics in meat production."

The FDA's approach is clearly ineffective when it comes to tackling the overuse of our life-saving antibiotics.

"Without swift action to reduce antibiotic use, drug-resistant bacteria could claim millions of lives annually across the world," Wellington added. "The current shortage of amoxicillin offers a glimpse into what life without antibiotics would be like." (See related CIDRAP News story.)

This week's top reads

Our underwriters