Hooray for Antibiotic-Free Chickens! But We Can't Stop There

April 30, 2015

It seems the era of feeding large volumes of antibiotics to chickens to promote growth and prevent disease is on its way out. Tyson Foods announced it will join fellow producers, Perdue and Pilgrim’s Pride, and large buyers, such as McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, and Chipotle, in sharply reducing use in chickens of antibiotics that are also used in human medicine. Details of each company’s phase-out plans differs, and their definition of which antibiotics should be avoided because they are important for human health is key. Still, given the alarming rise in “super bugs” – bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics – this is great news.

I can’t help but wonder, though: what about pork and beef? In my recent policy paper on antibiotics on the farm, I pointed to a growing number of studies that indicate the economic benefits of using antibiotics in livestock are small, or even negative, in well-managed operations. This is particularly true for poultry operations, so it is no surprise that this is the part of the food market where we’re seeing the most action. But as I’ve discussed previously, the experience in Europe, where regulators have been more aggressive in restricting antibiotic use on farms, and evidence from controlled experiments on pig farms in the American Midwest suggest that farmers could do more to reduce antibiotic use in other animals without suffering large losses.

Even more worrisome is that these private sector commitments will have little, if any, impact on the practices of livestock producers in rapidly growing emerging markets. China, for example, already produces more pork than the United States produces beef, pork, and chicken combined. Antibiotic resistance is a global problem and industrial livestock production, with extensive use of antibiotics, is growing fastest in China, India, and a number of other developing countries. This is what makes the new World Health Organization report on global responses to antimicrobial resistance so troubling. The WHO reports that only one country in Africa and nine in Asia have comprehensive, multi-sectoral national plans to combat resistance.

Next month, the WHO Secretariat will present a draft global action plan on antimicrobial resistance to the World Health Assembly for approval. While approval is expected, concrete actions need to follow – and quickly – to meet this rapidly expanding challenge.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.