How India Can Cut Dangerous Antibiotic Misuse In Food Animals
India will see the highest growth rate in antibiotic usage in food animals between now and 2030, a new study has estimated. Currently it ranks fourth among the 10 nations with high levels of antibiotic use in animal farms.
If regulatory authorities do not step in, 4,796 tons of antibiotics will be fed to animals reared for food by 2030, up 82 percent, as per the report published in the journal Science. Animals reared for food were fed 2,633 tons of antibiotics in 2013.
However, two basic interventions could change that: A cap on the amount of antibiotics that can be administered to a food animal, and a price hike in veterinary antibiotics to dissuade excessive use.
“The [expected] hike [in antibiotic use] reflects the growing consumption of meat in India, and in particular, meat from animals administered antibiotics as growth promoters,” said Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy (CCDEP) and co-author of the study.
In rural India, the consumption of mutton, beef, pork and chicken has more than doubled between 2004 and 2011. It has gone up from 0.13 kg per capita per month to 0.27 kg, according to the 61st and 68th rounds of National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data. Urban India has seen a spike from 0.22 kg to 0.39 kg in the same period.
Why This Antibiotic Shouldn't Become the Poultry Farm Favourite
In Punjab, two-thirds of farmers of poultry – the most commonly consumed meat in India – use antibiotics for growth promotion, according to another recent study by Laxminarayan and others, as IndiaSpend reported in August 2017.
Tetracyclines and fluoroquinolones – antibiotics commonly used to treat cholera, malaria, respiratory and urinary tract infections in humans – were found to be the most commonly used antimicrobials.
Of all the medicines used in livestock in India, quinolones are projected to see the biggest increase in use, 243 percent through to 2030, according to the new study.
The inappropriate use of antimicrobials in food animals has been cited as a leading cause of rising antimicrobial resistance at a 2016 United Nations General Assembly meeting on ways to tackle the problem.
In India, the impact of the practice is already visible. Poultry farms in Punjab that participated in the earlier CCDEP study reported high levels of multidrug-resistant bacteria that can easily escape into the environment, said Laxminarayan.
“Levels of multidrug-resistance were close to 90 percent in biological samples obtained from animals on those farms,” he said. “The spread of multidrug-resistant bacteria would mean that many more people could die from common infectious diseases.”
Indian Food Authorities Are Slow to Respond to the Threat
Antibiotics are freely and cheaply available in India. This is the biggest reason for the reckless use of antimicrobials as growth promoters in poultry farms.
How can this be changed?
In June 2017, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) brought out a draft notification prescribing residual limits for antibiotics, veterinary drugs and pharmacologically active substances in meat, poultry, eggs and milk. This came six years after the authority prescribed antibiotic residual limits for fish and fishery products and honey.
“Antimicrobial resistance is an evolving area, we have been studying the implications of the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in food animals in India and are willing to address this concern,” Pawan Kumar Agarwal, CEO of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, told IndiaSpend.
He estimated that it would take another 90 to 120 days for the regulation to be introduced.
Antibiotics Used to Cut Costs on Sanitation, Diet
By specifying the limits of permissible antibiotic residue in food animals, the FSSAI regulation, when it is framed, will indirectly make it unlawful to use the drugs beyond a certain limit.
Both these moves are critical, said Laxminarayan, “because animal feed is practically being used as an industrial input, to avoid the costs that farmers would incur to raise the animals in hygienic conditions on a healthy diet”.
In the 18 farms that Laxminarayan’s team visited during the first study, it was found that large flocks, more than 50,000 birds, were kept in confined areas lacking proper sanitation.
Organic Nurturing Results in Higher Costs, Price
To understand why poultry farmers use antibiotics as cheap and easily accessible growth boosters, consider the case of an agro enterprise that has adopted organic practices.
At Kansal & Kansal Agro Farms in Haryana, chicken feed is sourced only from pesticide-free farms and then mixed with herbs. The chickens are kept in a partially temperature controlled environment. The farm also invests in research to improve farming practices.
These practices keep the animals healthy but also result in higher production costs to “about double the cost of farms using antibiotics”, said Mohan Lal Kansal, founder and director of the farm and a former professor of animal science at the Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana.
How to Cut Antibiotic Misuse by More Than Half
High-income countries with highly productive livestock sectors—such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands—use antibiotics sparingly. The limit is less than 50 milligrams of antibiotics per population corrective unit (mg/PCU), a measurement unit developed by the European Medicines Agency to monitor antibiotic use and sales across Europe.
The new study suggests capping the use of antibiotics in farm animals at 50 mg/PCU globally. If India were to adopt this limit, antibiotic use in food animals in the country would decline by 15 percent, or 736 tons through to 2030.
A second regulatory recommendation–a 50 percent user fee on the price of veterinary antibiotics–would reduce antibiotic use in food animals in India by 46 percent, or 2,185 tons by 2030.
Limiting Meat Intake May Not Help
Limiting meat intake to the equivalent of one fast-food burger, roughly 40 grams per person per day globally—or 14.6 kg per person per annum—is the third intervention proposed by the new study.
Globally, limited meat intake could help reduce the global consumption of antibiotics for food animals by 66 percent. However, this intervention is not needed in India, where the per capita consumption of meat is below 5 kg per capita per annum.
Although a higher consumption of animal proteins is considered useful in protein deprived populations, increasing meat consumption beyond this daily recommended allowance of 40 grams has no health advantages, said Laxminarayan.
The Need for Greater Consumer and Farmer Awareness
One reason why many European nations adopted ethical and organic practices in its animal products industry is the high level of consumer awareness in its markets. In India, consumers of animal products have yet to become demanding.
When Kansal started out in business, he travelled to Hyderabad and Bengaluru to talk about his decision to adhere to organic poultry farming. He found southern consumers more understanding of the impact of antibiotics misuse and the benefits of organic product, he said.
Low farmer awareness is also a concern.
In the absence of regulation, most of the poultry feed available in the market is medicated. But the majority of poultry farmers in Punjab that Laxminarayan’s team surveyed said they didn’t know this.
(Bahri is a freelance writer and editor based in Mount Abu, Rajasthan. This article has been published in an arrangement with IndiaSpend)
(The Quint is now on WhatsApp. To receive handpicked stories on topics you care about, subscribe to our WhatsApp services. Just go to TheQuint.com/WhatsApp and hit the Subscribe button.)