Why and how to limit antibiotic use in livestock farming

The misuse and overuse of antibiotics in livestock farming poses a serious threat to animal health and farm profitability, but mostly to human health. It would appear that the use of antibiotics in animals leads to selection and growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria — just like in human medicine. Here’s why.

Misuse of antibiotics and its consequences

Almost 1.3 million people die every year from infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This figure continues to rise and could reach 10 million by 2050, which would make antimicrobial resistance the leading cause of death worldwide. This “silent pandemic” is caused by the overuse—and often misuse—of antibiotics: some bacteria are killed while resistant ones develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them so they can continue to grow and multiply. France has taken a number of measures to lower the risk of selection, which can make pathogens such as staphylococcus or E coli more difficult to eradicate. One may recall the 2005 campaign called Les antibiotiques, c’est pas automatique (“Antibiotics are not automatic”) reminding doctors and patients  that antibiotics are ineffective against viruses, or the 2017 campaign that encouraged livestock farmers and veterinarians to use antibiotics appropriately and only when necessary (Les antibios, comme il faut, quand il faut). This initiative was re-launched at the end of 2022 in line with the French Ministry of Agriculture’s Écoantibio plans, which ran from 2012 – 2016 and 2017 – 2022 respectively. While France has already reduced livestock exposure to antibiotics by 47% in ten years, further efforts are still required. Europe has taken a similar approach by taking tougher measures on the prescribing and dispensing of antibiotics in the farming sector in January 2022.

Facing antibiotic resistance: the One Health approach by WHO

While EU law may restrict inappropriate usages in Europe, the same cannot be said about many other countries where livestock farmers are free to give antibiotics to sick animals without checking first if they are suffering from bacterial infections. Antimicrobials are also used routinely to promote growth and prevent disease in healthy animals. Some antibiotics do have anti-inflammatory properties that can alleviate digestive stress and therefore help with the fattening process. However, there is a downside to the use of antibiotics in farm animals they can select for antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the intestines of animals that may contaminate the meat or meat products, resulting in infections being passed on to humans who consume them. Few people are aware of this but the use of antibiotics in livestock is not just an agricultural issue, it is also a major public health concern. This is why the World Health Organisation (OMS), the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations promote the “One Health” approach, which requires working at the local, regional, national and global levels to tackle the issue.

More cost-effective alternatives to antibiotics

Raising awareness among farmers is not always enough. Whether or not they understand the risks involved, low-income farmers are more concerned about improving farm profitability. In order to encourage them to look ahead to the long term, “we need to provide them with tailor-made, cost-effective solutions”, explained Alain Riggi, Veterinarian and Poultry Product Manager at Phileo by Lesaffre.  “We were able to do that in Vietnam in 2021 by offering training courses to 115 family-run farms on new techniques aimed at limiting the risk of infection. We succeeded in convincing them to reduce the use of antibiotics by 66%.” Some of the most efficient solutions recommended included vaccination, good hygiene conditions of farm buildings, reduced livestock densities and the improvement of livestock farming practices for better animal welfare. “When our sales technicians go on-farm, we encourage them to explain to the farmers that these initiatives are an investment in the future, that they will contribute to improving animal health in a sustainable way and ultimately livestock profitability,” added Alain Riggi. Even more so now that a variety of antibiotics are in short supply and becoming more expensive. France also adopted a decree in February 2022 banning imports of meat from animals treated with antibiotics as growth promoters. Other states should soon follow suit.

Towards post-antibiotic transition in livestock farming

To support the post-antibiotic transition, Phileo has compiled several guides on livestock farming (Strategies to reduce Salmonelle prevalence in the poultry industry, etc.) with an obvious emphasis on food quality. Adding specific food supplements made from yeast or products derived from fermentation is another way to promote animal growth. “Like Safmannan® for instance, which has anti-inflammatory properties. Made from isolated yeast cell walls rich in beta-glucans and mannans, Safmannan® helps to maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria, especially during stressful events (e.g. weaning, castration, heat or cold stress, transportation etc.). It also helps to boost the immune system and mitigate pathogen colonisation in the gastrointestinal tract, without the risk that some of the bacteria become resistant to antibiotics”, explained Alain Riggi. “With higher concentrations of beta-glucan, Safglucan® can “train” immune cells to respond faster and more efficiently to infections. The results of the trial carried out in Mexico a few years ago following the vaccination of poultry flocks against Newcastle disease virus (NDV) support the efficacy of Safglucan®. We found that antibody levels were six to seven times higher in the blood of the birds that had received the product, meaning they were better prepared to fight the virus.” The product recommended for pigs or cattle is ActiSaf®, a live yeast that is particularly effective in restoring balance to the gut microbiota or improve rumen fermentation. Products can be used together to further improve livestock performance, according to species, seasons and needs: a list of programmes suggested by Phileo can be found on the company’s website. Yeasts and products derived from fermentation will certainly play a key role in the future of animal welfare.

Reduce antibiotic usage in livestock farming by offering solutions that can increase animal resistance to stress.
Alain Riggi
Veterinarian and Poultry Product Manager at Phileo by Lesaffre

What trends for 2030?

The use of antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs in food animals is expected to increase further by 2030, according to a recent study published by PLOS Global Public Health. 

  • According to the researchers’ projections, cattle, sheep, chickens, and pigs could ingest nearly 107,472 metric tons of antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs in 2030, an 8% increase from 2020. 
  • These animals account for 91.1% of the world’s animal biomass for food.
  • The top 5 consumers in 2020 were China, Brazil, India, the United States, and Australia, which account for 58% of global antimicrobial use. By 2030, this top 5 would be unchanged.
  • In 2020, Asia consumed more than half of all antimicrobials, 58,377 metric tons, (59%) with 56% coming from China alone