Sales of antibiotics for use in livestock have fallen to the lowest level since records began, according to a Defra report released today.

The report found sales of antibiotics for use in food-producing animals had fallen by 27% between 2014 and 2016.

It equates to 17mg less antibiotic being sold per kilogram of body mass in UK livestock on average, with levels falling from 62mg/kg in 2014 to 45mg/kg.

The reduction surpasses a government target of 50mg/kg set as part of recommendations in the 2016 O’Neill Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, and comes two years ahead of schedule.

Defra minister for rural affairs and biosecurity Lord John Gardiner hailed the findings, and commended the UK’s farmers and vets for “setting an excellent example for others around the world to follow”.

Industry experts including the UK’s chief veterinary officer and chief medical officer also welcomed the news.

The O’Neill review estimated that the crisis could cost the global economy $100 trillion (£76 trillion) by 2050.

“Vets are taking accountability for their prescribing decisions and farmers are investing in disease prevention,” said chief veterinary officer Neil Gibbens.

“We need solidarity across the profession with no easy route to access antibiotics where they are not justified,” he added. “Tackling antibiotic resistance requires a commitment across all areas of animal health, together with work on human use by colleagues in the medical professions, and our work together to tackle the issue at global level.”

The Defra figures include a drop in sales of antibiotics defined by the WHO as ‘highest priority critically important’ to human medicine. Purchases of drugs in this category fell to less than 1% of all antibiotics sold overall for animal usage in 2016, while sales of last resort antibiotic colistin fell by 83% following fears of a “post-antibiotic era” after colistin resistance in livestock was discovered in 2015.

“This is testament to the hard work and communication of the past 18 months. The UK already uses 60% fewer antibiotics to treat and prevent disease than the EU average, but this demonstrates that our strategies to change how we use and safeguard antibiotics for animal health are working,” said Ruma chairman Gwyn Jones.

“It’s especially heartening to see such a huge fall in the use of highest priority critically important antibiotics, which must only be used as an absolute last resort to prevent animal suffering. However, today’s news is just a start.”

New targets

In the wake of Defra’s announcement, a task force assembled by Ruma unveiled new targets for further adjustments of antibiotic use in food-producing livestock at a conference in London today (27 October). The task force is made up of experts in each meat sector, as well as independent observers from regulators the FSA and Veterinary Medicines Directorate.

As sectors with low antibiotic reliance, the beef and sheep industries committed to a 10% reduction in antibiotic use by 2020, subject to securing better data. The gamebird sector set an objective of cutting drug use by a quarter in 2017 to be followed by a further 25% reduction between 2018 and 2020.

The pork and poultry industry have historically been the largest consumers of antibiotics, with both making big changes in response to recent concerns. Defra’s data showed that usage among pigs fell by 35% between 2015 and 2016, paving the way for a 60% overall reduction by 2020.

The poultry meat sector reduced its antibiotic uptake by 71% between 2012 and 2016, ceasing preventative treatment and use of critically important antibiotics completely. It will now work to maintain levels in chickens and attempt further reductions in turkeys.