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UK government must regulate farm antibiotics through Repeal Bill and new trade deals

Regulation of farm antibiotics, to protect these important medicines for human use, has previously been led by the EU. What must the UK government now do to take leadership on reducing farm antibiotics, in preparation for the UK leaving the EU, ask Cóilín Nunan of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics.

The World Health Organization the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Organisation for Animal Health have warned that unless “urgent action” is taken in human medicine and livestock farming that “treatments for many common infections will soon become risky or impossible” and that “injuries that have been treatable for decades may once again kill millions”. They say that the consequences may include millions of human lives, lost productivity, bankrupt health systems but also reduced food production and unsafe food. The government’s own O’Neill Review on Antimicrobial Resistance estimates that the total cost of antibiotic resistance to the global economy, if no action is taken, could amount to $100 trillion to $200 trillion by 2050.
When the UK leaves the European Union, we need to make sure that our regulation of farm antibiotics is both preserved and improved. Over recent years, legislative action to control the unnecessary use of antibiotics on farms has largely taken place at a European level, recognising the international significance of this issue for human and animal health. With UK law-making and institutions returning to UK responsibility over the next few years, this must not cause a slip backwards for UK antibiotics regulation. It might, and we need to take action to ensure that it does not.
Our first step must be to ensure that such standards are properly protected in the EU Withdrawal (Repeal) Bill. However, with chlorine-dipped chicken hitting the headlines, we must also consider what pressure UK regulators will come under - and what farming practices we may be supporting internationally - as a result of future international trade deals. Farm antibiotic use in the US is much higher than in the UK and than in practically all EU countries, and antimicrobial resistant bacteria are no respecters of country borders. This is an international issue and requires international leadership.

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Farm antibiotic regulation - the story so far

In March 2016, the European Parliament voted by 95% in favour of a ban on all routine preventative use of antibiotics in livestock production. The vote raised hopes that after decades of massive overuse of antibiotics in farming, and of increasing antibiotic resistance in farm animals and in humans, regulators and politicians were finally becoming serious about dealing with the problem.
Antibiotic growth promoters were phased out in the European Union between 1999 and 2006, after new Member States Sweden and Finland who had already ended their use in their own livestock sectors lobbied for a ban. The United Kingdom initially opposed the growth promoter ban, but eventually agreed to support it.

Unfortunately, the growth-promoter ban has not been very effective in reducing total farm antibiotic use as many farmers simply adjusted by increasing their preventative use of antibiotics instead. They were able to do this because in most European countries, including the UK, antibiotics can be routinely added to animal feed and water, so long as a veterinary prescription is obtained, and there is no need for the vet to diagnose any disease in any of the animals before they prescribe. This is why the European Parliament’s vote seemed so important.
However, over a year later, the Council of Ministers and the European Commission have yet to approve the legislation. Some countries, like the Nordic countries and the Netherlands have already stopped routine prevention so would like to see the EU follow suit, whereas others seem resistant to change.

The approach taken by UK governments so far

The UK government claims that it supports an end to routine preventative use of antibiotics, but it also refuses to implement any ban in the UK until the EU makes it do so.
Previous UK governments and farming and pharmaceutical-industry bodies having a history of having at various times opposed important European legislation governing farm antibiotic use, like the growth-promoter ban and the ban on advertising antibiotics directly to farmers. So there are major concerns that when the UK leaves the EU, we may see future governments avoid fully implementing legislation banning routine preventative use of antibiotics. The potential for introducing loopholes that would permit ‘business as usual’ is very real.
The UK government has accepted that farm antibiotic use needs to be reduced, but at the same time it wants to strike trade deals with countries like the US that have exceptionally high antibiotic use in farming. It is therefore unclear whether the UK will ever regulate farm antibiotics to the level now urgently required if they feel it will put UK farmers at a competitive disadvantage. Delays in EU attempts to regulate farm antibiotics before Brexit may mean the Repeal Bill will not include any restrictions on routine farm antibiotic use.


This Brexit Brief is by Cóilín Nunan, Scientific Advisor, Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, which was founded by Compassion in World Farming, the Soil Association, and Sustain

Additional material contributed by Kath Dalmeny, Chief Executive, Sustain: The alliance for better food and farming

Photograph of caged hens by Sandeep Subba

What needs to happen?

The UK government must move, without any further delay, to:
  • ban the routine preventative use of antibiotics in farming
  • introduce legally binding restrictions on the most critically important antibiotics
  • develop a farm-animal health and welfare strategy aimed at increasing standards of livestock husbandry to reduce reliance on antibiotic use. More extensive forms of livestock farming with lower intrinsic needs for antibiotics should be encouraged
  • include reduced antibiotic use as a ‘public good’ worthy of public support, through for example policy and subsidies, in the new Agriculture Bill due to be introduced in the 2017/18 UK parliamentary session.
To protect existing farm antibiotic standards, the Repeal Bill must:
  • Confirm that any substantive changes to UK policies and standards, before or after Brexit, must be made by primary legislation only, giving a full and proper role to parliamentary scrutiny, on behalf of UK citizens and, where relevant, scrutiny by devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Limit delegated powers, including Henry VIII powers, strictly to the purpose of faithful conversion, with a statement on the face of the bill that powers cannot be used for purposes beyond faithful conversion.
  • Set out new arrangements for good food governance, to ensure the continued provision of monitoring, measuring, ensuring proper implementation, checking compliance, enforcing, reviewing and reporting, co-ordinating and publicising. The Repeal Bill must also set out requirements for new or upgraded UK governance institutions to have adequate resources, appropriate independence, relevant expertise and sufficient powers. This is necessary to ensure proper regulation of farm antibiotics, as well as high standards for food safety, baby food, animal and plant health and animal welfare, food traceability, effective action against food fraud and high standards of environmental protection.

To ensure progress on farm antibiotics is not undermined, the UK Trade Bill must:

  • Require trade negotiations and trade deals to be open, transparent and accountable to our elected representatives in Parliament, to ensure that important principles, protections and strategies are not ‘sold off’, and that any changes to standards are made with proper scientific and parliamentary scrutiny.

Sustain has joined the new Fix the Bill alliance, coordinated by Unlock Democracy, to press for better policy outcomes from the Repeal Bill, for people and the planet - health, welfare and sustainability. Sign up your organisation for news or to get involved at and follow on Twitter at @fixrepealbill

Published Sunday 3 September 2017

Good Food Trade Campaign: Campaigning for good trade that benefits people and the planet at home and overseas.

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Kath is Chief Executive of Sustain: The alliance for better food and farming.

Kath Dalmeny
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