World Health Organization Urges Meat Industry To Cut Routine Antibiotic Use

Media Contacts
Matt Wellington

Former Director, Public Health Campaigns, PIRG


Statement by Matthew Wellington, U.S. PIRG Antibiotics Program Director, on new antibiotic use guidelines by the World Health Organization.

The World Health Organization’s new guidelines on antibiotic use in the meat industry couldn’t come sooner. At least 2 million Americans become ill each year due to antibiotic-resistant infections and 23,000 die.

As noted by the WHO, “the world urgently needs to change the way it prescribes and uses antibiotics. Even if new medicines are developed, without behaviour change, antibiotic resistance will remain a major threat.”

The guidelines make clear that the agriculture sector needs to stop using antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention in healthy animals. In the U.S., roughly 70% of medically important antibiotics are sold for livestock and poultry, and much of that is given to animals that are not sick, i.e. for growth promotion or to prevent disease common in unsanitary, crowded living conditions.

While the WHO has recommended that we prohibit antibiotic use for routine and preventive purposes in animals, our federal government continues to stall. The federal government needs to catch up with the two states, California and Maryland, that have passed legislation to address the routine use of antibiotics on food animals. 

And, frankly, U.S. policy needs to catch up with major stakeholders in the industry who have carved out a leadership role by limiting antibiotic use to instances in which animals are sick. Producers including Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods have eliminated the use of medically important antibiotics altogether in much of their production. Major restaurants including Subway, Chipotle and Panera Bread either currently serve or will soon be serving only meat raised without routine antibiotic use.

In September 2016, the U.S. declared itself as one of the 193 U.N. member states committed to working together to address the root causes of the antibiotic resistance crisis across human health and agricultural settings. If the U.S. wants to stay true to this declaration, our policymakers need to establish strong policies to limit antibiotic use in agriculture to treating sick animals or controlling a verified disease outbreak. As one of the largest meat producing countries in the world, the U.S. government should heed the WHO’s words by taking action.