Although more than 30 countries have already banned antibiotic growth promoters, where poultry production is concerned, antibiotics in many parts of the world are generally administered to the entire flock for prophylaxis, disease treatment and growth promotion.
However, there is growing pressure on poultry and other livestock producers to change their practices as antibiotic resistance has emerged as one of the biggest public health concerns of the 21st century.
According to think tank the RAND Corporation, failing to tackle antimicrobial resistance will mean that the world population by 2050 could be between 11 million and 44 million lower than it would otherwise be in the absence of antimicrobial resistance.
While completely eliminating antibiotic resistance is unlikely, the overall position can be improved.
While use of antibiotics in livestock is known for the U.S. and EU, only estimates are available for China.
When poultry have a disease that requires antibiotic treatment, they have to be treated with antibiotics, and this is something that cannot be changed.
However, what can be changed is the use of antibiotics for growth promotion and prophylaxis -- their use substituted with proper farm management, increased biosecurity, and the use of novel feed ingredients.
Biosecurity constitutes a set of measures to prevent the introduction of infectious disease agents and to minimize the incidence and spread of disease agents in poultry flocks.
Management of the poultry farm, including the transfer of birds between production areas, checks on people and other animals entering the farm, as well as the proper management of equipment, vehicles, air, feed and water supply all need to be carefully monitored. There are several professional farm management and biosecurity guides available to help with this.
Where nutrition is concerned, a recent meta-analysis of poultry feeding trials has found that some novel feed additives have been found to perform as well, if not better, than antibiotic growth promoters,.
Antibiotic use spurs resistance
Given the connection between antibiotic resistance and antibiotic use, it is worth considering how widely antibiotics are used in meat production.
Globally, livestock consumed an estimated 63,151 tons of antibiotics in 2010 yet, with an absence of monitoring programs in many countries, the true figure remains unknown.
In China, for example, where coccidiostats are favored, poultry consumed an estimated 4,500 tons of antibiotics in 2012 while, for 2011, the USDA report that 48 percent of broilers in the U.S. received antimicrobials for disease treatment while 20-52 percent received antimicrobials for nontherapeutic reasons.
Dutch resistance reduction
The case of broiler production in the Netherlands is instructive in demonstrating that antibiotic resistance may be reduced through lower use of antibiotics.
Recent data from Monitoring of Antimicrobial Resistance and Antimicrobial Usage in Animals (MARAN) shows that the use of antibiotics in broilers has declined since 2008. This decline coincides with a lower level of antibiotic resistance in commensal Escherichia coli in broilers, considered as an indicator bacteria for resistance detection.
The Dutch study offers an example for other poultry producers, demonstrating that combating antibiotic resistance by reducing the use of antibiotics offers a way to preserve the value of medicines for disease treatment.
The use of antibiotics in the Netherlands has declined since 2008, following the overall trend for the Dutch livestock sector.
Levels of antibiotic resistance in Dutch broilers have declined as antibiotic use has been reduced, suggesting that stewardship is an effective strategy.