In addition to the scientific, economic, regulatory and other policy factors that impact on antimicrobial decision-making in different jurisdictions around the world, there exist ethical, social and cultural bases for the contemporary use of these products in animal agriculture. Thus, the use of the word ‘parable’ to describe the contemporary moral stories that help to guide ethical antimicrobial use practices and broader policy decisions in animal agriculture is appropriate. Several of these stories reflect difficult decisions that arise from conflicting moral imperatives (i.e. both towards animal welfare and towards human health). Understanding the factors that combine to define the past and present paradigms of antimicrobial usage is crucial to mapping a path forward. There exist barriers, as well as opportunities, for advancing scenarios for reducing antimicrobial usage under a variety of voluntary, regulatory and legal policy frameworks. Any new approaches will ideally be structured to extend the use of present-day antimicrobials into the future, to provide novel alternatives for regulating any newly introduced antimicrobial products so as to maximize their useful life span and to ensure the optimal use of these products in animal agriculture to protect not only the health of animals and the interests of animal health/agriculture stakeholders, but also the human health and the interests of the public at large. A full range of policy approaches, which span the realm from strictly enforced regulations and laws to voluntary guidelines and compliance, should be explored with respect to their risks and benefits in a variety of worldwide settings and in full consideration of a range of stakeholder values.