World leaders have called for an urgent reduction in the amount of antimicrobial drugs, including antibiotics, used in food systems.

The Global Leaders Group on Antimicrobial Resistance said countries must stop the use of medically important antimicrobial drugs to promote growth in healthy animals.

The request from the group, which was created in November 2020, comes ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit in New York on Sept. 23. Members include heads of state, government ministers, and representatives from the private sector and civil society.

Antimicrobial drugs are also given to animals for veterinary purposes to treat and prevent disease.

Mitigation measures
A top priority is to reduce the use of drugs that are of the greatest importance to treat diseases in humans, animals and plants.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in bacteria can make foodborne infections such as Campylobacter and Salmonella harder to treat. Experts said climate change may also be contributing to an increase in AMR.

Officials said there had been a substantial fall in antibiotic use in animals globally but further reductions are needed. Without action to reduce levels of antimicrobial use in food systems, the world was heading toward a tipping point where the drugs relied on to treat infections in humans, animals and plants will no longer be effective.

“We cannot tackle rising levels of antimicrobial resistance without using antimicrobial drugs more sparingly across all sectors,” said co-chair of the group, Mia Amor Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados.

Other key points include reducing the need for antimicrobial drugs by improving infection prevention and control, hygiene, biosecurity and vaccination programs in agriculture and aquaculture, ensuring access to quality and affordable antimicrobials for animal and human health, and promoting innovation to find sustainable alternatives to antimicrobials.

Consumers can also play a key role by choosing food from producers that use antimicrobial drugs responsibly, according to experts.

High price for further delays
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization director-general, said the consequences of antimicrobial resistance could dwarf those of COVID-19.

“We need urgent action to win the race against AMR. The longer the world delays, the greater the costs will be, in terms of costs to health systems, costs to food systems, costs to economies, and costs in lives and livelihoods,” he said.

“We need to invest in human health, animal health, plant, food and environmental eco-systems to properly respond to the growing threat of AMR. Many countries have national action plans on AMR but too few are funded for implementation. Countries must be supported to scale-up strategies to prevent infection and to ensure the responsible use of antimicrobials. What makes investing in AMR attractive is the cross-cutting benefits it offers across several sectors.”

Inger Anderson, from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said it is time to act on the science and respond rapidly to AMR.

“Already, 700,000 people die each year of resistant infections. There are also serious financial consequences: in the EU alone, AMR costs an estimated €1.5 billion ($1.77 billion) per year in healthcare and productivity costs. With concern over zoonotic diseases at an all-time high, governments can take advantage of the synergies available from tackling emerging disease threats concurrently.”

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