USDA rejects WHO recommendations on in-feed antibiotic use

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis contact

- Last updated on GMT

 © iStock/grThirteen
© iStock/grThirteen

Related tags: Medically important antimicrobials, Antibiotic resistance, Medicine

The WHO is recommending that animal producers cease feeding or using medically important antibiotics to prevent potential disease or as growth promoters.

The World Health Organization (WHO) released recommendations​ and best practices​ on the use of antibiotics with food producing animals on Tuesday.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said that the WHO’s guidelines did not align with current US policy and were not supported by “sound science.”

“The recommendations erroneously conflate disease prevention with growth promotion in animals," ​said Chavonda Jacobs-Young, acting chief scientist with the USDA, in a statement​ on the guidelines.

The response from the USDA was a “disappointment”​ for some agricultural groups in the US.

“That was really disappointing,”​ Steve Roach, food safety program director with the Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT) told FeedNavigator. “The WHO didn’t just pull these out of the air, they have a deliberative process that they need to use when they want to make public health recommendation.”

However, he said, it was not surprising given previous statements the USDA has made on the subject.

The Chicago-based organization has been working on the issue of antibiotic use in animal agriculture since the 1990s, he said. Its overall focus has been in several areas including working to address US regulation on the topic, to support research and to promote animal welfare practices aimed at reducing the need for antibiotic use.


The USDA is sticking by current FDA regulation that allow for antimicrobial drugs to be fed or given to food producing animals, said Jacobs-Young.

“Under current Food and Drug Administration (FDA) policy, medically important antibiotics should not be used for growth promotion in animals,” ​she said. “In the US, the FDA allows for the use of antimicrobial drugs in treating, controlling, and preventing disease in food-producing animals under the professional oversight of licensed veterinarians.”

The proposed guidelines would place “unnecessary and unrealistic constraints”​ upon veterinarians, she said. 

However, the department agrees with WHO that more data is needed to assess progress on the use of antimicrobials and resistance, she said. And that work should continue to establish alternative therapies to address “treatment, control and prevention of disease.”

Jacobs-Young added that the department remains ready to continue its work with the WHO, World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to address antibiotic stewardship and the spread of antibiotic resistance.

FACT supports the guidelines outlined by the WHO, said Roach. “Since most of antibiotics are used on the farm both globally and nationally, these new guidelines are vitally needed,”​ he added.

“FACT has long called for a prohibition on the use of medically important antibiotics for routine disease prevention,” ​he said. “Hopefully now that the WHO has made the same call, both companies and countries will listen.” 

The group also supports the idea that there are some antibiotics critical for human health that should not be used in agriculture, he told us. In the US, there have been antibiotics not approved for use in food animals for that reason, he added.

“I’m not saying this is easy,” ​he said. “We’ve created systems of raising animals that are dependent on antibiotics, but both the regulatory, and consumer and retail pressures may make producers think about how we can do this.”

WHO recommendations and suggestions

Among the series of guidelines offered, the WHO suggested that the focus be on limiting the use of antibiotics that are important for human medicine. The new guidelines were informed, in part, by research linking a restriction of antibiotic use in food-producing animals with a reduction of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The recommendations included that there should be an “overall reduction in use of all classes of medically important antimicrobials in food-producing animals,”​ that no medically important antimicrobials should be used for growth promotion, and no medically important antimicrobials should be fed or used with food-producing animals to prevent a disease – prior to the disease being clinically diagnosed, said the WHO.

The organization also conditionally recommended that antimicrobials considered “critically important”​ or “highest priority critically important”​ for human health not be used to control a diagnosed infection in food-producing animals, it said.

The exclusions are recommended because they could offer a benefit to human health in reducing the amount of antimicrobial resistant bacteria found in humans, the organization said. “Evidence from the systematic reviews and extensive research into mechanisms of antimicrobial resistance supports the conclusion that using antimicrobials in food-producing animals selects for antimicrobial resistance in bacteria isolated from food-producing animals, which then spread among food-producing animals, into their environment, and to humans,​” it added.

The WHO also provided two best practices, including that any new class of antimicrobials, or new antimicrobial combination that can be used in human medicine should be considered critically important and that antimicrobials that are considered medically important and not currently used in animals should not be used for them in the future. 

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