Indian farmers have been giving growth promoters to poultry Credit: Noah Seelam/AFP
The world’s largest animal drugs company has been accused of double standards and of fueling the development of ‘superbugs’ by selling antibiotics to farmers in India for purposes now banned in Europe and the United States.
Zoetis, a former subsidiary of the drugs giant Pfizer, is supplying farmers in India with antibiotics to help them artificially fatten up livestock including chickens.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for the practice to be banned worldwide because it increases the prevalence of drug-resistant bacteria that can infect humans and cause deadly and untreatable infections.
The American company stopped advertising antibiotics as growth promoters to American farmers nearly two years ago and publicly supported new US laws banning the use of antibiotics to fatten livestock as part of its “continued commitment to antibiotic stewardship”.
However, Zoetis is continuing to sell antibiotics directly to Indian farmers with claims on the company’s Indian website that it will make animals grow bigger and faster. It is able to do so because the practice - although frowned on by the Indian authorities - is not illegal in India.
Dr Abdul Ghafur, a professor in infectious diseases who brought together medical societies and the Indian government in 2012 to create a plan to tackle antibiotic resistance, known as the Chennai Declaration, said Zoetis is using “double standards”.
“If an American company follows one policy in America, they should follow the same policy in India,” he said.
Dr Thomas Van Boeckel, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) who has mapped antibiotic use in agriculture, said: “It is blatantly clear that Zoetis is using a double standard in the way it is willing to expose consumers in India to higher levels of risk than in the United States.”
Zoetis says it complies with the law in each location where it operates.
The unnecessary use of antibiotics in agriculture, such as their use to make animals grow faster rather than treat disease, are major contributors to growing levels of resistant bacteria or so called superbugs.
It is estimated 100,000 babies a year in India die from infections caused by resistant bugs. Worldwide they’re believed to kill 700,000 people, according to a British government-commissioned review in 2016. WHO has called antibiotic resistance one of the greatest threats to public health globally.
Zoetis has previously said it is “a leader in providing ongoing education to veterinarians and livestock producers on the proper use of antimicrobial drugs”.
When asked last month why it continued to sell antibiotics for growth promotion in India it said it did not believe it was causing harm.
It said that when used “properly and responsibly according to their approved indications” and “under the supervision of a veterinary professional” its products do not contribute to drug resistance and do not pose a threat to public health.
Others disagree. The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) have called for a worldwide ban on the use of antibiotics to fatten farm animals in an attempt to stem the rising threat of resistance.
They - like the WHO - say that unnecessarily giving healthy animals antibiotics is fuelling the rise of superbugs.
In veterinary drug stores in Hyderabad, reporters found a number of antibiotics manufactured by Zoetis which are used to fatten animals being sold over the counter without a prescription.
Although Zoetis says the drugs should be administered under the supervision of a vet, the products are made available for purchase directly by farmers.
Ahead of new laws introduced last year in the US banning the use of antibiotics as growth promoters, Zoetis voluntarily began to remove such claims from its products there. In 2013, it said it supported efforts “to voluntarily phase-out growth promotion indications for medically important antibiotics,” adding that it had “already taken action”.
Meanwhile in India Zoetis is selling Neftin-T, which contains the antibiotic tylosin. Zoetis recommends feeding Neftin-T to chickens to “improve weight gain and FCR [feed conversion rate]”.
Tylosin has been banned for use as a growth promoter in the EU since 1998 because of fears it fuels resistance to erythromycin, which is used to treat chest infections and other human diseases. WHO classes erythromycin as “critically important” to human health.
The practice of using antibiotics to make animals grow faster was banned completely in the EU in 2006.
Pharmaceutical companies earn about $5 billion a year from worldwide sales of antibiotics for livestock, according to analysts Animal Pharm. As one of the world’s leading producers of medicated feed additives - many of which contain antibiotics - Zoetis takes a significant slice of the market.
Zoetis faces a dwindling sales in the US and EU because of the ban but expects increased sales elsewhere will more than compensate. Speaking to investment analysts in February, Zoetis chief financial officer Glenn David said he expects to see sales of medicated feed additives rise overall “as the emerging markets become more industrialised”.
Animals reared for meat in the major emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa are expected to consume double the amount of antibiotics in 2030 than they did in 2010 - posing a major risk to the spread of antibiotic resistance globally.
Not all major animal drugs manufacturers behave in the same way. Elanco, one of Zoetis’ competitors, has stopped advertising medically important antibiotics as growth promoters for animals. In 2016, it removed such claims from all its product labels worldwide, even in countries like India where antibiotic growth promoters remain legal.
Zoetis said: “Each country enacts regulations appropriate for their market needs and standards, and we work with the national regulatory authorities in various countries, including India, to understand, respect and comply with local regulatory interpretation and oversight.”
Experts are particularly concerned about the widespread use of a ‘last hope’ antibiotic called colistin on Indian poultry farms. It is often used to treat seriously ill people with infections that have become resistant to almost all other drugs and is deemed one of the “highest priority, critically important” antibiotics by WHO.
Although none of Zoetis’ growth promoters contain colistin, a number of major Indian poultry companies have been found to use the drug, spreading fears about how much longer one of the last lines of defence against highly resistant infections will be effective.
An investigation earlier this year found Venky’s, one of the country’s biggest chicken producers which supplies Indian branches of fast food chains KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Dominos, to have been providing colistin to farmers to help their birds grow bigger.
Venky’s has since removed these growth promotion claims from the packaging, which also now says a veterinary prescription is needed - although the product remains available to farmers without prescription in drug stores.
Venky’s said it is “manufacturing Colis-V (colistin sulphate) with due approval from the Food & Drug Administration, Government of Maharashtra, India. The usage of Colis-V (colistin sulphate) in poultry farming is based on advice from Registered Veterinary Practitioners only".
Similarly, another leading Indian poultry producer, Simran Group Farms, sells a colistin growth promoter under the brand name Vetline India. Simran Group Farms did not respond to multiple requests to comment.
Fears about growing resistance to a drug crucially important to human health has led some to call for an outright ban of colistin use on farms.
The discovery of a colistin-resistant gene that can pass between bacteria, conferring resistance to bugs never exposed to the drug, sent shockwaves through the medical community in 2015. Scientists believe the gene originated in bacteria in Chinese livestock, but it has since been found across five continents.
Timothy Walsh, a professor at Cardiff University who made the discovery in 2015, called for a worldwide ban on colistin use in agriculture.
“I’ll be OK, but my children and my children’s children are seriously going to grow up in a world where we have no viable antibiotics because of unrivalled stupidity,” he said.
In 2016, the British government published a major review of the global threat of superbugs, which called for vast reductions in the use of antibiotics in agriculture worldwide. The review warned that there could be as many as 10 million deaths a year from superbugs by 2050. While colistin can still be prescribed on British farms, its use has dramatically reduced in recent years.
But growth promoting antibiotics, including colistin, remain widely available to Indian farmers through a number of international and domestic pharmaceutical companies. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found multiple of examples of Indian drug manufacturers selling colistin as a growth promoter for chickens, including Neospark, Kaizen Bio Sciences and Vet-Needs Labs.
While relatively unknown abroad, their products are widely available online in India, where farmers are given unrestricted access to some of the most important antibiotics to human health.
Neospark said: “Officially there is no ban in India for the specified usage of colistin in farm animals… As law abiding company, Neospark never deviates the law of the land.”
Kaizen Bio Sciences and Vet-Needs Labs didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Regulation is improving in India but the pace of change is slow. Following a court order, Maharastra state has ruled all animal drug stores should stop selling antibiotics to farmers without a prescription. But in other states, no such regulations are in place.
Experts say determined action by India’s national government is urgently needed but few are optimistic.
Walsh said: “I see no good end to this story at all.”
Ben Stockton, Madlen Davies, Rahul Meesaraganda are reporters with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism
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My question is why is PM Modi allowing this or is he ignorant about this ...WAKE UP INDIANS AND HAVE THIS BANNED ASAP BEFORE ANY MORE DAMAGE TO LIVESTOCK AND HUMANS.
If someone reading this post from India please take some positive action to have this banned from India.
I will e-mail PM Modi’s Office so someone can alert him so he gets it banned from India unless he wants to get banned from India for allowing this