New report flags use of antibiotics on animals

Out of 155 countries, 45 acknowledged using antibiotics on animals, says report by World Organisation for Animal Health; wake up call for India

By Rajeshwari Sinha
Published: Monday 18 February 2019
Representational Photo: Getty Images

A new report by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), on antimicrobial agents intended for use on animals, indicates that use of antimicrobials as growth promoters is still being practiced.

Out of a total of 155 countries that provided data on administration of antibiotics to animals to fatten them, 45 (29 per cent) countries acknowledged the use. The findings also indicate that Highest Priority Critically Important Antimicrobials such as tylosin and colistin is being used by many countries as growth promoters.

Colistin is also a “reserve” category antibiotic according to the World Health Organization (WHO), implying that it should only be considered for use when all other alternatives fail. Out of the 45 countries still using antibiotics as growth promoters, 14 are in Asia, Far East and Oceania.

The findings are of grave concern, especially in the wake of growing antimicrobial resistance (AMR). The use of antibiotics for non-therapeutic use in food-animal production and its contribution to AMR is widely known.

Apart from treating diseases, antibiotics are also used for mass disease prevention and growth promotion. Mass medication is often used as an alternative to proper farm hygiene, sanitation, biosecurity, and also to tackle stressful rearing situations in intensive animal farming practices.

These, once again, bring our attention to the use of antimicrobials as growth promoters in India. Although the report does not disclose names of countries, this is a commonly used practice in India.

Antimicrobials relevant for human health are routinely used in poultry or aquaculture for non-therapeutic purposes. These are administered in sub-optimal doses through feed or mixed with water.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in 2018, revealed how Venky’s Ltd, a conglomerate involved in poultry farming and raising chickens on contract to supply to fast food industries, has been supplying colistin to farmers to help fatten chickens.

The Journal of Global Antimicrobial Resistance also published a study where colistin resistant bacteria and mcr-1 gene (responsible for such resistance) was detected in raw food samples, including poultry meat, mutton, fish, fruit and vegetables, in Chennai.

The Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based non-profit, earlier highlighted the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in poultry farming and aquaculture practices in India, and has been advocating for the need to eliminate non-therapeutic antibiotic use in animals.

On the regulatory front, action has been slow from the different stakeholders involved. The only action till now has been in the form of an advisory, issued in 2014 by the Union agriculture ministry, which calls for no antibiotic use in feed or feed supplements for animals; and is voluntary.

There have been only deliberations, but no concrete action to restrict the use of growth promoters in feed. The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) also recommends not using antibiotics with systemic action as antibiotic growth promoters (AGPs) in feed, however, this is again not mandatory. Even though BIS set up an expert panel to make the restriction mandatory, no significant action has been taken so far.

The Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) recently garnered appreciation for setting up standards for antibiotic residues in food-animal products such as meat, milk, etc. While this is a good step, the FSSAI provides food standards for colistin indicating that such “last resort” antibiotics can still be used in rearing food-animals as long as it remains undetected while monitoring residue.

More than two years after the National Action Plan on AMR called for restricting and phasing out non-therapeutic antimicrobials, recent media reports hailed the Drug Technical Advisory Board’s, India’s highest drug advisory body, recommendation to stop the use of colistin by poultry farmers. However a formal announcement is still awaited.

“Phasing-out antibiotic misuse as growth promoters is the first step to contain antibiotic resistance in animals. India’s action plan on AMR called for it about two years ago, but there is no laid out roadmap so far. We also highlighted misuse of colistin in 2014, but it continues to be allowed,” says Amit Khurana, programme director, food safety and toxins, CSE.

“It’s high time that Central and state governments act and show that we are serious in addressing the AMR crisis, which is expected to severely impact the health of people,”  he adds.

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