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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. 

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 referring to abolishment of 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.

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 (oral solutions, oral powders and premixes as percentages of total sales) 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.

Currently, antibiotics are often used for disease prevention and growth promotion in food-producing animals. 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. Learn how in PREVENT INFECTION – Food animals.

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.

What needs to be done?

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 the 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.

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 This report explains and discusses the development and spread of AMR and its relations with food production.
CODEX ALIMENTARIUS: Codex Texts on Foodborne Antimicrobial Resistance This document is part of the CODEX ALIMENTARIUS international food standards, guidelines and codes of practice for international food trade. The document compiles the 2 Codex guidelines “Code of Practice to Minimize and Contain Antimicrobial Resistance” and “Guidelines for risk analysis of foodborne antimicrobial resistance”. It provides guidance for the responsible and prudent use of antimicrobials in food-producing animals and for assessing risk to human health from foodborne antibiotic resistant bacteria as well as determining appropriate management strategies to control those risks. English, French and Spanish versions included.
OIE Terrestrial Animal Health Code Chapter 6.10: Responsible and prudent use of antimicrobial agents in veterinary medicine.
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.
The Evolving Threat of antimicrobial resistance – Options for Action Chapter 4 describes examples of policy activities that have addressed antimicrobial resistance in different parts of the world, with the aim of raising awareness and in particular to stimulate further coordinated efforts.