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Globally, it is estimated that 66% of all antibiotics are used on farm animals. This widespread prophylactic use of antibiotics as an insurance policy against disease is a dangerous one, and experts warn it is driving antimicrobial resistance, dubbed a “hidden pandemic.”
On 28 January, the EU introduced a ban on the routine use of antibiotics on farm animals, something which has been three years in the making. The UK is now trailing behind when it comes to legislation on antibiotic usage, and campaigners are urging the government to introduce similar regulations in line with the EU.
Although farmers have voluntarily reduced their antibiotic use by 50% in recent years, prophylactic use of antibiotics is still far too high, “far higher than is sustainable or necessary,” and often used as a plaster for the gaping wound that is factory farming. According to Cóilín Nunan from the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, antibiotic use in British pigs alone is still “two-and-a-half times higher per animal than in Denmark and the Netherlands.”
In the UK, there are 1,674 intensive factory farms, including 789 megafarms, where animals are crammed into cramped, poorly ventilated areas, covered in faeces, urine, and dead and dying animals. It is a place of suffering and a breeding ground for disease, and instead of improving the living conditions of these animals, many farmers decide to put antibiotics into these animals’ feed or water.
Speaking about the prevalence of this practice, Suzi Shingler, campaign manager for the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics (ASOA), said: “If you imagine a big herd of pigs or chickens that are stressed and overcrowded, the immune suppression they get from this environment is really asking for disease and illness to spread. Instead of making changes to these conditions, it has been for decades cheaper and easier to give them all low levels of antibiotics in their feed and water.”
Meanwhile, data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Vet Record found that between 2015 and 2019, the use of aminoglycosides (an antibiotic “critically important” to human health), doubled on UK farms. The dangers of this overuse and misuse of antimicrobials have been repeated time and time again, and a recent report in the Lancet revealed just how unsafe it is. In 2019, 1.2 million people worldwide died from infections caused by bacteria that were resistant to antibiotics – exceeding the death toll from both malaria and Aids.
Looking further ahead, experts are warning that if we don’t change our usage of antibiotics by 2050, antimicrobial resistance will “kill more people than cancer does today.” This has been echoed by the WHO, which said that without “urgent action”, we’ll move quickly towards a post-antibiotic era; a future where common infections will kill en masse once again.
The EU introduced a ban on the routine use of antibiotics in farm animals back in 2018, and this came into force throughout the EU on 28 January 2022. In line with the new regulations (Regulation (EU) 2019/61 on Veterinary Medicines and Regulation (EU) 2019/4 on Medicated Feed), antimicrobial medicinal products:
However, while this move appears to be a step in the right direction, there are fears that Member States and the EU livestock sector are not prepared to put these regulations into action. This is something that’s been substantiated by a recent European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) report, which outlines antibiotic usage will likely remain at the same levels due to “inadequate animal husbandry” and “poor hygiene.” Olga Kikou, head of the EU office of Compassion in World, in an article for the Brussels Times, outlined that the early weaning of piglets and the prevalence of frankenchickens necessitates such antibiotic usage, and without tackling these practices, the sector will be unable to fall in line with regulations.
The UK government has previously expressed its support for the EU’s antibiotics regulations, but there has been a distinct lack of action to back this up. The closest the government came to action was in 2018, the same year the EU regulations were legislated. Back then, farming minister George Eustice informed MPs of the government’s intention to “implement restrictions on the preventive use”.
Yet, to this day, in the UK, it remains legal to routinely administer antibiotics to farm animals when they’re not ill and also give preventative group treatments to farm animals. Likewise, it is also permitted to administer antibiotics to farm animals to “compensate” for inadequate welfare conditions. Imports of animal food products with antibiotic growth promoters are legal, too.
Responding to this lack of governmental action, ASOA, a coalition of health, medical, environmental and animal welfare groups campaigning to stop antibiotic overuse and misuse in animal farming, alongside the Soil Association, is calling for the UK to introduce a legislative change.
EPHA has made a number of recommendations to ensure that the new EU regulations are adhered to, and this guidance would also bolster UK practices if adopted. These recommendations include the low levels of farm antibiotic use (kept below 30 mg per kg of “population correction unit” (PCU), eventually cut to 15 mg/kg or less in each species), the introduction of restrictions on highest-priority critically important antibiotics, and antibiotic use for individual treatments rather than group treatments. Likewise, to further avoid the need for antibiotic usage in farm animals, the EPHA also recommends a number of changes to farming practices, including later weaning in piglets, the use of appropriate breeds (not frankenchickens), an improvement in hygiene, reduction in indoor stocking density and the introduction of proper “enrichment”. Other important recommendations include banning tail docking in piglets, the introduction of more fibre in animal diets, and proper access to the outdoors for animals.
Speaking to the Guardian, a spokesperson for the government’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate said that it intends to outline proposed regulatory changes as part of a public consultation during 2022, but did not comment on whether or not a ban would be part of the proposed changes. “We are committed to reducing unnecessary use of antibiotics in animals and it remains our intention to strengthen our national law in this area,” they said.
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