Overuse of antibiotics in farming

Read a detailed account of the science and our concerns in our latest report: Antimicrobial resistance: why the irresponsible use of antibiotics in agriculture must stop.

Farm animals account for almost 2/3 of all antibiotics used in 26 European countries and at least 50% of antibiotics worldwide. In the UK, on-farm antibiotic use accounts for around 45% of total usage.

These trends show no sign of slowing down. The overall use of antibiotics on UK farms increased by 18% between 2000 and 2010, whilst over the past five years on-farm use of antibiotics classed as ‘critically important’ in human medicine (modern cephalosporins and fluoroquinolones) increased by 35%.

This is in sharp contrast to the state of affairs in human medicine, where the use of these antibiotics has fallen steadily over the last 8 to 10 years.

At present, it is legal under EU law to routinely ‘mass-medicate’ animals, even when no disease has been diagnosed. Antibiotics are widely used - especially for pigs and poultry - as an insurance policy against disease arising from low-welfare, cramped conditions.

Although at first glance these practices allow us to readily access cheap meat, our fixation on antibiotics is creating a silent army of resistant bacteria that threaten both human and animal health.

 

Our antibiotic addiction - the risks to human health

The contribution of farm antibiotic use to human resistance is widely recognised, including by the World Health Organisation and the European Food Safety Authority.

Antibiotic resistant bacteria pass between humans and animals in both directions. Resistance in human infections is mainly caused by human antibiotic use, but for a range of bacteria, farm-animal use contributes significantly:

  • for bacterial infections such as Campylobacter and Salmonella, farm antibiotic use is the main cause of resistance in human infections.
  • farm antibiotic use is has significantly contributed to the rise of a new and almost untreatable type of E.coli, which is causing large numbers of deaths in the UK and elsewhere.
  • emergence of resistance to critically important antibiotics - in particular of ESBL E. coli, ESBL  Salmonella, fluoroquinolone-resistant Campylobacter - is driven in part by inappropriate use of antibiotics in veterinary medicine
  • the high use of certain antibiotics in farm animals has caused the emergence of a new strain of MRSA in farm animals, which is spreading rapidly and transferring to humans

 

Our recommendations for urgent and immediate action

Whilst some countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark taking urgent action to reduce farm antibiotic use, others continue to avoid tackling the irresponsible use of these precious medicines.

The UK government has already set targets for reducing the amount of antibiotics prescribed by doctors. But the ‘Five Year Antimicrobial Strategy’ does not include any targets for reducing use of antibiotics classed as critically important for humans, or for phasing out routine preventative use.

This is a significant loophole which could undermine any improvements in medical stewardship.

 

A case for better farming

Routine, preventative antibiotic use supports farming practices that are inhumane and unsustainable.

We believe that if animals need to be pumped full of drugs to survive, there is a clear problem with the conditions in which they are placed.

Animals farmed with full access to the outdoors, or in less intensive conditions tend to require far fewer antibiotics than those farmed entirely indoors.

Organically farmed animals, for example, are treated far less frequently than those farmed intensively. Organic farming bans routine preventative use of antibiotics, and forbids use of ‘critically important’ antibiotics except in individual, exceptional cases.


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Overuse of antibiotics in farming

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