Livestock Vaccines Could Slash Antibiotic Use on Farms

Each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. This problem has been increasing steadily over the last 70 years as antibiotic prescriptions have skyrocketed. But those are the minority of prescriptions—80% of the antibiotics in the U.S. aren’t prescribed to humans at all, but rather to the livestock that we eat.

Cows
Antibiotics are commonly used to ensure that disease does not spread when keeping many cows together in close proximity.

The drug industry has recognized the dangers that arise with this increased use of antibiotics and is making a concerted effort to reduce usage, starting with livestock.

Here’s Jared S. Hopkins reporting for Bloomberg:

Farmers and ranchers aren’t eager to give up antibiotics because the drugs are cheap and easy to administer. But change is coming as voluntary Food and Drug Administration rules become mandatory in January. Those include prohibiting labels that claim antibiotic use promotes growth and requiring veterinarians to administer most of the drugs. Vets also will oversee drugs that are currently bought over the counter.

The deadline has prompted the $30 billion animal-health and drug industry to embark on a campaign to educate agribusiness and farmers that vaccines can do just as credible a job protecting animals.

Livestock vaccinations were already a $5.5 billion market in 2010, but by 2020 the market is expected to be worth $7.2 billion as this shift from antibiotics ramps up. In September, drugmakers, government officials, and nonprofit groups will convene in a summit in Washington, D.C., to discuss future strategies to combat antibiotic resistance.

Although the trend toward vaccinating livestock instead of feeding them antibiotics looks promising, there are certain diseases that must still be treated with antibiotics. Take, for example, shipping-fever pneumonia, which develops in calves and can be caused by several different bacteria and viruses. Often it can only be treated with antibiotics.

This, along with the fact that cows and pigs live longer than poultry, may explain why many major chains such as McDonald’s and Perdue Farms have only committed to using antibiotic-free poultry, but haven’t making the same promises for beef or pork.

Drug companies are hoping to bring the cost of the vaccines down to the point where it makes little sense not to give them to their herds. In the long run, it may be cheaper to vaccinate them up front rather than wait to administer antibiotics later.