Food safety

Antimicrobial resistance in the food chain

November 2017

How does the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals lead to antimicrobial resistance in humans?

The high volume of antibiotics in food-producing animals contributes to the development of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, particularly in settings of intensive animal production. In some countries, the total amount of antibiotics used in animals is 4 times larger than the amount used in humans. In many countries much of the antibiotics used in animals are for growth promotion and prevention of disease, not to treat sick animals.

These bacteria can be transmitted from animals to humans via direct contact between animals and humans, or through the food chain and the environment. Antimicrobial-resistant infections in humans can cause longer illnesses, increased frequency of hospitalization, and treatment failures that can result in death. Some types of bacteria that cause serious infections in humans have already developed resistance to most or all of the available treatments and we are running out of treatment options for some types of infection. WHO recommends an overall reduction in use of antibiotics in food-producing animals to help preserve their effectiveness for human medicine.

Why is antimicrobial resistance important for food safety?

Many of the bacteria (such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and Escherichia coli) carried by animals can also cause disease in people. These bacteria, which are frequently antimicrobial-resistant, can contaminate our food supply from farm to fork, such as through slaughtering and processing. Fruits and vegetables may also be contaminated by such bacteria at the farm or later through cross-contamination. We know about this because we can link drug-resistant bacteria isolated from sick people to an agricultural source through DNA fingerprinting.

Over 400 000 people die each year from foodborne diseases, with over one-third of these deaths occurring in children under 5 years of age. The vast majority of foodborne illnesses are caused by microbes, including bacteria, according to WHO estimates . If these bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, it will become impossible to treat them and more people will die from foodborne diseases.

Why is WHO providing advice to the agriculture sector?

WHO is providing advice to the agriculture sector because the most effective way to prevent the transmission of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria from food-producing animals to humans is by preventing the emergence and dissemination of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria in food-producing animals. WHO’s mandate is to build a better, healthier future for people all over the world. This includes protecting people from health threats due to antimicrobial-resistant infections and unsafe food.

Antimicrobial resistance is a major threat to human health. Optimizing the use of antibiotics in both human medicine and animal husbandry will help slow down its emergence and spread. These WHO guidelines were developed to reduce this important public health threat to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics important for human health. The recommendations are based on WHO’s list of critically important antimicrobials for human medicine, with the goal to safeguard all, especially critically important antibiotics. to treat multi-drug resistant infections in humans.

Who are the important actors that can help implement the recommendations in the Guidelines?

These guidelines are relevant to every country, regardless of region, income and setting. The primary audience of these guidelines is policy makers and regulatory officials overseeing the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals. In addition, veterinarians, food animal organizations, food producers, pharmaceutical companies, animal health and public health officials, physicians and other health providers all have a role to play. Consumers also have a strong influence on the way foods are produced and are driving the market for meat produced without routine use of antibiotics in some countries. For example, Namibia has developed a strong export market for its beef since it introduced a ban on the use of antibiotics for growth promotion.