Overuse of antibiotics on farm animals could lead to a pandemic “much bigger than Covid”, activists have warned.
Health experts are calling for a ban on the use of low doses of antibiotics on healthy farm animals, saying the practice reproduces intractable “superbugs” that could spread to humans.
Farmers often give animals a preventative low dose of antibiotics as an insurance policy against disease. But from January 28, new European legislation will ban all forms of systematic use of antibiotics in agriculture, including preventive treatments.
The government’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate has launched a consultation on whether the UK should follow suit.
Antibiotic use on farm animals has declined dramatically in recent years – a 52% reduction since 2014 – but campaigners say it doesn’t go far enough.
They call on the government to follow the EU and ban the practice of giving the drugs to healthy farm animals.
The UK’s Health Security Agency warned last month that antimicrobial resistance was a “hidden pandemic”, while the World Health Organization estimated that drug-resistant diseases could kill 10 million people in the world. world each year by 2050 if no action is taken.
Doctors are now trying to fight against patients’ excessive dependence on antibiotics by reducing their prescription. Although 66 percent of antibiotics are used by humans, a significant percentage – 26 percent – is used on farm animals.
Suzi Shingler, campaign manager for the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, said: “If you imagine a large herd of stressed and overcrowded pigs or chickens, the immune suppression they get from that environment is really asking the disease to end. propagates. Instead of changing those conditions, it has been decades cheaper and easier to give them all low levels of antibiotics in their food and water.
Ms. Shingler warned that low doses could dramatically increase the risk of untreatable bacteria breeding. “The mass dosage creates the perfect breeding ground for the survival of the most potent type of bacteria,” she said. “The worst elements will survive the low dose of antibiotics in the long run and it’s like overloading the natural selection process of superbugs.”
These bacteria can find their way to humans through waterways, such as when swimming in the wild, as well as through undercooked meat products and effluent spilled in fields.
Deputy Daniel Zeichner, shadow Minister of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, said that while there has been “progress in reducing antibiotics in farm animals, we need more ambition and urgency on the part of this government ”.
He added: “Farmers and the food industry should follow the voluntary code by stopping the regular use of antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease in healthy animals, as the World Health Organization says. has long advised. ” He also called on the government to ensure that trade agreements require “at least the same standards for imported animal products” that UK farmers adhere to.
SNP MP Lisa Cameron, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Health, said she was “deeply concerned about the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture” and warned of the “ease with which resistance antimicrobials can develop in humans “. She concluded that the recommendations of the Special Committee on Health on the matter should be “made urgently”.
A 2018 committee investigation warned of “serious concerns” about the use of antibiotics on healthy animals. They warned that “this needs to be taken care of after the UK leaves the EU” and recommended that any future trade deal commit to meeting the same standards of antibiotic use as the EU.
But Chris Lloyd, secretary-general for Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (Ruma), said the UK had “a positive history in terms of antibiotic use.” He said there was a debate to be had as to whether the UK was following Europe “because we have already done a lot of what the EU is trying to achieve”.
Ruma has worked with each of the UK’s farm animal sectors to raise awareness of the dangers of antimicrobial resistance.
Speaking of the prospect of a ban, he said: “You can always do more and we continue to work on responsible use, but our recent record is positive.
“I am not convinced that a black and white decision is the right one when the realities are often much more complex. Do we need more restrictions on how antibiotics are used when we have already been so successful in reducing their use? “
UK chief veterinarian Christine Middlemiss said Britain was making “significant cuts” in the use of antibiotics on farm animals.
She pledged to continue to work closely with the industry and added, “It is encouraging to see farmers and vets continue to work together to tackle antibiotic resistance.
The National Farmers Union said its members have voluntarily reduced their antibiotic use by 52% since 2014.
Catherine McLaughlin, NFU Chief Animal Health and Welfare Advisor, added, “We will consult with our members and respond accordingly when the details of the Veterinary Drugs Directorate consultation are known. “
Research by World Animal Protection (WAP) last year found dangerous antibiotic-resistant superbugs in rivers and lakes near factory farms in Spain, the United States, Canada and Thailand.
The group collected soil particles and surface dust from waterways upstream and downstream of pig farms in North Carolina, United States. Eighty-three of 90 samples came back positive for antimicrobial resistant genes, a “widespread contamination” which the researchers said “strongly suggests that factory farms are releasing resistance genes into public waterways.”
The group will conduct similar research in the UK next year.
Lindsay Duncan, UK campaign manager at WAP, said the coronavirus pandemic has shown how emerging issues in a country are not limited to it. She said: “If there are one or two bad players, it’s still going to cause a problem for the rest of the world.
“It’s not just the case where the EU is doing the right thing. We all need to do that and pass this bill. It will be the next major pandemic and it will have a very big effect on people. “
Ms Duncan said antimicrobial resistance “is actually going to be much more important than Covid” because the problem cannot be solved with vaccines. “We can’t just produce vaccines against bacterial infections. These drugs have allowed us to live as we do; have an incredible life expectancy, heart transplants, major surgeries and recovering well.
She warned, “If antimicrobial resistance continues to grow as it is now, we are going to lose one of our most powerful drugs. There is no workaround for this, so it needs to be fixed now. “