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Toolbox  –  Rational use

Food animals

Strategies to rationalize use of antibiotics in the animal sector often mirror what has already been successful or is necessary for human medicine. 

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To achieve sustainable rational use of antibiotics in the animal sector it is necessary to take a holistic approach. Several different factors must be taken into account like animal health, veterinary public health, sustainability of food animal production, availability of veterinary medicines such as antibiotics and vaccines, and socio-economic factors.

What is rational use of antibiotics?

Rational use means to limit antibiotic use to when it is needed, and to use antibiotics appropriately. Rational use of antibiotics is not equal to decreasing use. Treatment with antibiotics is necessary for certain diseases in animals, in order to ensure survival, welfare, productivity, and reduced spread of disease. Livestock keeping is fundamental for livelihoods, economy and food and nutrition security, and this could be threatened if animal diseases are not treated when needed.

In the Global Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance member states are urged to take action to optimize the use of antibiotics. For the animal sector, this includes phasing out use of antibiotics for animal growth promotion and to reduce nontherapeutic, routine use of antibiotics. As a main guiding principle, antibiotics should only be used after prescription by a veterinary professional. Also, it is recommended that the Code of Practice developed by Codex Alimentarius and the WHO guidance on the use of critically important antibiotics should be implemented.

Healthier animals need less antibiotics

It is common to administer antibiotics to whole groups of animals on a regular basis to prevent or control disease outbreaks. Reasons may be to compensate for shortfalls in production systems, such as stressful situations for animals, or lacking hygiene and biosecurity. In many cases this routine use of antibiotics can be prevented by better animal husbandry practices such as improved biosecurity. It has for example been shown that biosecurity measures are correlated to fewer group treatments and less antibiotic use in pig herds. Available official data on amount of group treatment in different EU-countries show a variation from 10% to more than 90%. This indicates that there is a large potential for improvement in many settings.

Mahidol University interviewed Dr. Anthony D So from ReAct North America about antimicrobial resistance, the use of antibiotics in farm animals and he also shares his suggestions on potential target areas in the supply chain.

What needs to be done?

The long-term goal of rational use efforts should be to promote a transition to health-oriented farming systems where routine use of antibiotics is not needed. While animals will continue to be infected occasionally, the burden of diseases, and thus the need of antibiotics, can be significantly reduced by preventing infections through vaccinations, improved hygiene and biosecurity routines. Learn how in PREVENT INFECTION – Food animals.

As with human health, a multifaceted approach is best to reach sustainable use of antibiotics. Some examples of actions are to:

  • Improve animal health through better hygiene and animal husbandry in farms. Infection prevention measures, including vaccines, reduce disease so that less antibiotics are needed
  • Monitor antibiotic use and resistance
  • Develop and revise guidelines on antibiotic use in animals
  • Introduce and enforce regulations on the use of antibiotics
  • Train and educate animal health professionals and farmers
  • Raise awareness in the community

Barriers to rational use

In many countries, the sale of antibiotics is an important part of the income for animal health workers and pharmacists, and therefore, there may be little incentives to discourage use. Similarly, animal health workers may be reluctant to not give antibiotics if there is a risk that the farmers will be dissatisfied.

When the pharmaceutical market is unregulated with no requirements for prescriptions, the costs for veterinary advice may be higher than antibiotics and deter the farmers from calling the veterinarian. Farmers may be reluctant to be more selective in their use of antibiotics due to fears of more disease, or concerns that it will be more labor intensive. Farmers may also be unaware that they are feeding their animals antibiotics.

Public awareness on antibiotic use in food animals

Raising public awareness on the use of antibiotics in food animals and agriculture and the risks for human health can also be useful to influence consumer behavior and actions. Consumers can be drivers of changes in the food industry. See RAISE AWARENESS for guidance and materials to set up an awareness raising campaign.

Selected Resources

Resource Description
WHO guidelines on use of medically important antimicrobials in food-producing animals WHO recommendations on antibiotic use in animals, and evidence base: Urges farmers and the food industry to stop using antibiotics routinely to promote growth and prevent disease in healthy animals.
Drivers, Dynamics and Epidemiology of Antimicrobial Resistance in Animal Production (PDF 1,5MB) This report explains and discusses the development and spread of AMR and its relations with food production.
Antimicrobial Use in Livestock in Low-Income Countries A policy brief discussing antimicrobial use and resistance in livestock in low-income countries.
Addressing Antimicrobial Resistance: An Overview of Priority Actions to Prevent Suboptimal Antimicrobial Use in Food-Animal Production An overview paper discussing the factors influencing descision making and listing priority actions against misuse.
Antibiotic resistance: mitigation opportunities in livestock sector development An opinion paper on rational use of antibiotics and the importance of good animal husbandry to counteract AMR.