PARIS (Reuters) - The world body in charge of fighting animal diseases called for action against widespread abuse of antibiotics in livestock farming, which leads to drug-resistant bacteria, but warned on Wednesday that a ban would leave the world short of protein.
“The use of antibiotics is today essential to ensure sufficient animal production to feed the planet. Without antibiotics there would supply problems of animal protein for the human population,” Bernard Vallat, director of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) told a news conference.
Antibiotics are widely used in cattle, pigs and poultry to prevent or cure diseases and in many regions to boost output as several of them have side-effects that increase growth speed.
Scientists say overuse of antibiotics can allow resistant strains of bacteria to become dominant, undermining the efficacy of the drugs.
The debate over the impact of the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry has intensified in recent weeks with several countries, including the United States and Germany, taking or considering new measures to control it.
Vallat called for better training of veterinarians worldwide and for a fight against the illegal trade in antibiotics, which is widespread in poor countries and on the internet, to avoid misuse of antibiotics in rearing livestock.
“If you take the 100 poorest countries that take no precaution on this matter, we can see antibiotics passed around just like candies, without prescription,” he said, noting that this was true for both human and animal antibiotics.
Livestock industry groups argue that using antibiotics in animals keeps them healthy and does not have a direct link to development of resistant strains of bacteria affecting humans.
U.S. health regulators last week placed restrictions on animal use of a class of antibiotics often used to treat diseases like pneumonia in humans.
German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner said on Tuesday the country also intends to restrict the use of antibiotics in farm animals.
A survey by German environmental group Bund on Monday found that 10 of 20 samples of chicken meat sold in German supermarkets showed antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
These can affect humans, notably if they eat meat that is not properly cooked.
Similarly, a study showed in April that meat found on U.S. grocery store shelves often contained high levels of bacteria, with more than half of the bacteria resistant to multiple types of antibiotics.
The European Union banned the feeding of all antibiotics to livestock for growth promotion purposes as of 2006, a rare move which Vallat advocated at the global level, including in the United States.
The main producers of antibiotics for livestock include Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly and Pfizer.
The market represents only a thin share of the entire antibiotics market and Vallat regretted many companies had stopped making major investments in the sector.
The OIE, an intergovernmental body founded in 1924 as the Office International des Epizooties, and which now has 178 members, will organize a conference in Paris on the prudent use and monitoring of antimicrobial products in March 2013.