Sales of antibiotics for use in cows, pigs, chickens, and other food animals hit a whopping 33.8 million pounds in 2014 — a 4 percent increase over the previous year — a report released Thursday by the Food and Drug Administration revealed. That’s a greater rise than the year before, when sales of antibiotics to food animal producers in the United States rose by just 1 percent.
Nearly 21 million of those pounds and pounds of drugs were antibiotics that have been designated as “medically important” for human health. Sales of these kinds of drugs to food animal producers have been rising steadily in recent years — up by 23 percent since 2009, according to the report, the FDA’s annual summary of antibiotic sales to the food animal production sector.
“It’s the wrong direction,” said Lance Price, head of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University.
The release of the data comes on the heels of a report commissioned by the United Kingdom government that urged the setting of firm targets to reduce agricultural use of antibiotics. And it comes at a time when there is growing evidence that the massive use of antibiotics as growth promoters in food animal operations is threatening the utility of drugs the world relies upon to cure infections.
Just last month, researchers in China revealed they had found a new superbug, one that is resistant to the antibiotic of last resort for some bacteria. The drug is called colistin.
Colistin resistance has been seen before, but this type is different. The gene that makes the bacteria colistin-resistant, known as mcr-1, is contained in a plasmid, a mobile piece of DNA. Plasmids can easily move from one bacterium to another, both within a family of bacteria and to other families.
Like a kid who learns a cuss word — and teaches it to all the kids on the playground — this resistance could spread far and fast, experts predicted.
Within no time, the prediction was shown to be true. Last week, scientists in Denmark revealed they too had found mcr-1 in bacterial isolates taken from a person and from samples of poultry imported from Germany. To date, there have been no similar reports in the United States.
In an email exchange with STAT this week, Juli Putnam, an FDA spokeswoman, said that agency staff had gone back through bacterial isolates collected as part of the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) after learning of the discovery in China.
“The isolates FDA screened thus far included 2,800 Salmonella isolates from NARMS retail meats from 2002-2007 and 2011-2015 … as well as 76 E. coli isolates from cattle,” Putnam wrote. She noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta had also analyzed several hundred bacterial isolates taken from people.
“This gene was not discovered in any isolates, suggesting that mcr-1 is either not yet present in the US, or is not widespread.”