The World Health Organization (WHO) is now recommending against the routine use of antibiotics in food animals, according to new guidelines released by the international public-health agency.  

Many farms give these drugs to chickens, cows, pigs, and other farm animals to treat illness as well as to promote growth and prevent disease—two uses the new guidelines explicitly advise against. A majority of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used for this purpose.

When farm animals are fed antibiotics on a routine basis, weaker bacteria are killed off while bacteria that's resistant to these drugs survive and multiply. This practice has been a key factor in the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans, which kill more than 23,000 people in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There’s been a lot of attention given to reducing antibiotic use in human medicine, and that’s extremely important,” says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumer Reports. “But the WHO is now being very clear that this heavy use in animals is a direct threat to human health.” 

Gail Hansen, D.V.M., an expert in veterinary public health and antibiotic resistance, says such recommendations come only after thorough deliberation. "This is the first time the agency has come out strongly saying these antibiotics should not be used in animals in the absence of disease," she points out.

What the Guidelines Say

The new WHO guidelines, which are nonbinding but set a research-based standard for the international community, outline four specific recommendations:

1. There should be an “overall reduction” in the use of antimicrobials important in human medicine (which include antibiotics and antifungal drugs) in farm animals.

2. Antimicrobials that are important in human medicine should not be used for growth promotion in farm animals.

3. Antimicrobials that are important in human medicine should not be used for the prevention of diseases in farm animals.

4. Antimicrobials that are considered “critically important” in human medicine—those often used as a last resort—should not be used in farm animals at all, even to treat ones with a diagnosed infection.

These recommendations “go beyond what’s legally required in the U.S.,” Halloran explains.

Here, medically important antibiotics can no longer be used for growth promotion, according to guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that went into effect earlier this year. But the FDA has yet to prohibit the use of antimicrobials for disease prevention in animals, which accounts for a much larger share of total use.

“Coming from an American perspective, the new guidelines are fantastic,” says Laura Rogers, managing director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at The George Washington University. “They’re what the advocacy community has been asking of the U.S. government for decades.”

What Consumers Should Know

The new WHO guidelines are very similar to the guidelines Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports, has been pushing fast-food companies to adopt, Halloran says.

To date, McDonalds, KFC, and 12 other fast-food companies have agreed to end the routine use of medically important antibiotics in chicken. Panera Bread and Chipotle don’t serve meat and poultry that has been raised with any antibiotics.

These sorts of moves do get results.

Restricting the use of antibiotics in food animals leads to a 39 percent reduction in resistant bacteria found in those animals, according to the most comprehensive review of the evidence to date, published Monday in The Lancet Planetary Health.

While the WHO’s guidelines will not change agricultural practices in the U.S. on their own, Halloran says, consumers can vote with their wallets.

Finding meat and poultry raised without medically important antibiotics is getting easier thanks in part to consumer demand. For example, much of the chicken sold by major producers such as Perdue and Tyson is now raised without antibiotics.

Just look for a USDA Organic seal or a “raised without antibiotics” label. (For more on antibiotic labels on meat and poultry, see our guide here.)