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Animal feeding

What is the problem?

The availability and use of antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs in terrestrial animals is essential for animal health, welfare and productivity and contributes to food security, food safety and public health – and so in turn to the protection of livelihoods. However, there is global concern about the growing resistance to antimicrobial drugs that could reverse these benefits.

Antimicrobial resistance can occur naturally as all microbes can adapt to their surrounding environment. However, it is exacerbated by inappropriate and excessive use of antimicrobials in both human healthcare and the agriculture sector. Effectively addressing AMR requires the feed and livestock sectors to join others in committing to implement practices to minimize the need for and use of antimicrobials.

Antimicrobials have been used in animal feed for about 70 years, not only to treat diseases, but also to boost growth, improve feed utilization and reduce mortality; in other words to obtain an improvement in productivity. Antimicrobials improve livestock performance through a more efficient conversion of feed to animal products, increased growth rates and production yields, and lower morbidity/mortality rates.

More specifically, the term "antibiotic growth promoter" is used to describe any medicine that destroys or inhibits bacteria and is administered at a low, sub-therapeutic dose in pursuit of growth rather than on health grounds. The use of growth-promoters largely occurs in intensive livestock farming and has increased as such methods have expanded worldwide. Use of antibiotics to promote animal growth has been banned in European Union countries since January 1, 2006. 

Challenges and solutions?

The most straightforward measure for reducing the use of antimicrobials in animal production is to ban or minimize the use of antibiotics as growth promoters. The Codex Alimentarius’ specifically advises that antibiotics should not be used in feed for growth-promoting purposes in the absence of a public health safety assessment, and that, in any case, their use should be minimized.

But there are other critical measures that must also be pursued. One is the development of alternatives to antibiotics that work via similar mechanisms, promoting growth and increased production yield whilst enhancing the efficiency of feed conversion and promoting animal health and welfare.

Another is ensuring good hygiene, biosecurity measures, and general conditions on farms to prevent the need for any medicines in the first place. If animal production and transport environment and conditions are improved, for instance by reducing stock density and stress, or by increasing hygiene and by introducing disease control techniques, then the actual need for growth promoters may be removed.

There is a wide choice of options for minimizing antimicrobial use, and FAO works to promote their implementation with a variety of stakeholders in the feed sector. Some examples:

  • the application of Good Husbandry and Good Hygiene Practices in the animal production establishments and during animal transport;
  • improve animal welfare (e.g. ensuring good air and water supply quality, appropriate ventilation rates and space allocation) during all phases including production, transport and slaughter.
  • rigorous application of disease control measures (e.g. vaccination);
  •  the use of feed ingredients or additives that enhance the efficiency of feed conversion (e.g. in-feed enzymes, competitive exclusion products, probiotics, prebiotics, acidifiers, plant extracts, nutraceuticals, essential oils, yeast and many others);
  • the avoidance of ingredients with antinutritional properties (such as lectins, and protease inhibitors);
  • the specific processing and presentation of feed that make its conversion to animal products more efficient and increase growth rates and production yields. 

FAO supports governments, producers and other actors along the animal production chain through a Multi-Stakeholder Partnership for Capacity Development on Feed Safety and with training on good practices for the feed industry, using the FAO/IFIF Manual of Good Practices for the Feed Industry.

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