Today (28 January), new legislation comes into force across the EU banning the routine use of antibiotics in farm animals.
Despite the ban, a new report published by the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), shows that many Member States – and the EU livestock sector as a whole – have still not made the animal husbandry and health improvements needed to meet these new standards that are vital to preserving human and animal health.
The dangers of continued overuse of antibiotics cannot be overstated. Leading authorities, such as the European Medicines Agency and the World Health Organisation (WHO), have warned that the overuse of antibiotics in farming contributes to higher levels of antibiotic resistance in some human infections.
The WHO has stated that: “Antibiotic resistance is rising to dangerously high levels in all parts of the world… Without urgent action, we are heading for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill.”
If the livestock sector does not comply to the new EU regulations to curb use of antimicrobials in farm animals, we increase the likelihood of a future in which routine medical procedures, such as hip replacements, cancer chemotherapy, organ transplants and the treatment of preterm babies would become much more dangerous.
Is the UK falling behind on Antibiotics?
The EU legislation to ban routine antibiotic use in farming was agreed in 2018, and supported by the UK government at the time, who said it would introduce similar laws in the UK.
Yet, over three years later the UK government has still not published its own legislative proposals for ending excessive farm antibiotic use.
It remains legal in the UK to:
- give antibiotics to farm animals routinely, rather than when they are sick or have an infection
- give preventative group treatments to farm animals
- give antibiotics to farm animals to compensate for inadequate welfare standards, lack of care or poor hygiene
- import animal foods produced with antibiotic growth promoters
British farmers have voluntarily reduced their antibiotic use by 50% in the last five years, but more could be done to support British farming if the UK government introduced laws to end preventative antibiotic group treatments and increase animal health and welfare standards.
However, without a legal framework and the prospect of trade deals with countries such as the US, Australia and Canada with extremely high antibiotic use, all this progress is vulnerable to market pressures.
For example, total farm antibiotic use in both the US and Canada is five times higher than in UK livestock, so it is essential that both domestic and trade policies ensure that UK farmers are not made to compete with imported foods produced to much lower antibiotic standards.
The UK government needs to honour its repeated commitments to ban the routine use of antibiotics in farm animals. Otherwise British farmers - placed at a commercial disadvantage - could be compelled to reduce their own animal welfare standards and increase their use of antibiotics.
This would not only have a serious impact on the UK maintaining its role as leaders in farm animal welfare but it would lead to a huge rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Improved production = fewer antibiotics
Compassion has been working with the food industry to encourage the adoption of farming practices that prioritise animal health and welfare, thus reducing the need for antibiotics to be routinely used.
Making improvements to production systems – such as the lowering stocking density and using more robust breeds – are essential to significantly lower or remove the need for, antibiotics.
Compassion has developed an Antibiotic Stewardship Programme (ASP) to encourage companies to adopt a roadmap for responsible antibiotic use with the aim of eliminating or robustly regulating the use of antimicrobials.
The responsible use of antibiotics is a key element of corporate responsibility and an effective ASP is vital in order to protect animal health and welfare today and maintain the efficacy of our antibiotics into the future.