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Despite Pledges To Cut Back, Farms Are Still Using Antibiotics

Antibiotic- and growth-hormone-free cattle gather at a farm in Yamhill, Ore. Despite farmers pledging to reduce or stop antibiotics use, a new report finds that sales of antibiotics for use on farms are going up.

It's a continuing paradox of the meat industry. Every year, more restaurants and food companies announce that they will sell only meat produced with minimal or no use of antibiotics. And every year, despite those pledges, more antibiotics are administered to the nation's swine, cattle and poultry.

According to the latest figures, released this week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, antibiotic sales for use on farm animals increased by 1 percent in 2015, compared to the previous year. The increase was slightly greater – 2 percent — for antibiotics used as human medicine.

The FDA and other public health agencies have been pushing farmers to rely less on these drugs. Heavy use of antibiotics both in human medicine and in agriculture has led to the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria, complicating the task of treating many infections.

But the FDA finds a glimmer of good news in the latest figures, pointing out that the rate of increase has slowed. In the previous year, antibiotic use had increased by 4 percent, and a total of 22 percent from 2009 to 2014.

The poultry industry has made the most ambitious promises to reduce antibiotic use. Perdue Farms says that 95 percent of its chickens already are raised with no antibiotics at all. Tyson Foods, the largest producer, has announced that it is "striving" to end the use of antibiotics that also are used in human medicine. Tyson will continue to deploy a class of antibiotics called ionophores, which can't be used on humans. The new report, however, doesn't shed any light on the impact of these moves, because it doesn't show how much of each drug is used on cattle, swine or poultry.

In a statement, David Wallinga, from the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that "this report further underscores how urgently we need more and stronger government action" to reduce antibiotic use.

Ron Phillips, from the Animal Health Institute, which represents veterinary drug manufacturers, says that the FDA's data on drug sales tell us little about what's most important — whether the use of those drugs is leading to more drug-resistant bacteria. He says that another recent government report, from the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, shows "very encouraging trends." According to that report, bacteria found on meat at slaughter have not shown increasing resistance to most antibiotics in recent years.

There are some concerning trends, however. Some species of bacteria found on cattle have shown increasing levels of resistance to ciproflaxin, and turkey samples showed a big increase in Salmonella that's resistant to several different drugs.

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