October 7, 2011
China has announced that it will join the European Union in banning the use of antimicrobial growth promoters (AGPs) in food animal production, WattAgNet.com reports. When implemented, the ban could affect food animal production throughout the country. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated Chinese production at more than 4.7 billion chickens, 450 million pigs, and 84 million cattle in 2009, the most recent year for which data are available. This is clearly big news.
The use of AGPs in food animal production has long been a concern in the public health and medical communities. The administration of non-therapeutic doses of antimicrobials to increase animals’ growth rates has been found repeatedly to select for resistant bacteria. The practice could even induce mutations that make bacteria previously susceptible to antibiotics become resistant to them.
According to the WattAgNet article, China produced 420 million pounds of antibiotics in 2006, of which 194 million pounds (46.2 percent) were mixed into animal feed. The website states that production has nearly doubled since then, and currently stands at 800 million pounds! (For comparison, just over 36.1 million pounds of antimicrobials were sold in the United States in 2009, according to figures from the FDA.)
The administration of antimicrobials in animal feed is especially troubling, as this reduces control over the quantities of antimicrobials that animals receive, CLF research has shown. Such “dose imprecision” could increase selection for resistance. Banning AGPs is a good first step toward preventing the misuse of antimicrobials in agriculture.
In pledging to ban AGPs, China joins the EU, which banned the use of AGPs several years ago. Following the EU ban, public health scientists recorded a significant decrease in antimicrobial-resistant organisms among the intestinal flora of farm animals and agricultural workers. The correlation between a reduction in antimicrobial use and a decrease in antimicrobial resistance is one of several lines of evidence that support restricting the use of antimicrobials in food animals, as outlined in a recent review article, “Food Animals and Antimicrobials: Impacts on Human Health,” by Bonnie Marshall and Stuart Levy of the Tufts University School of Medicine.
Despite steps by the EU and China’s forthcoming ban, the United States continues to administer massive quantities of antimicrobials to food animals—largely (and imprecisely) through feed and water, and with very little regulatory oversight. Last December, CLF researchers used FDA data to calculate that almost 80 percent of antimicrobials sold in this country are purchased for use in food animals. The vast majority of these are, as in China, administered through animal feed and water.
There are a number of information gaps concerning China’s ban. When will it be implemented? How will compliance by food animal producers be ensured? Answers to these questions and others will play a large role in determining the new policy’s effectiveness. Still, we are hopeful that AGP bans in China, the EU, and elsewhere will reduce the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance. Furthermore, they could increase pressure on Congress and U.S. regulatory agencies to act in the same, scientifically sound vein.