The UK pig sector has slashed the use of last resort antibiotic colistin in response to concerns global overuse of the drug has encouraged resistance.

Use of the antibiotic, which treats a number of bacterial infections in both humans and animals, fell by more than 70% between 2015 and 2016, according to preliminary data from the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture coalition.

Colistin hit the headlines in November 2015 after the MCR-1 gene, which makes common bacteria resistant to the drug, was found in pigs in China. The gene was subsequently detected in countries across Europe (including the UK), plus Africa and Asia, prompting warnings of an impending “antibiotic apocalypse”.

RUMA said preliminary analysis of data received via AHDB Pork’s new pig e-Medicines Book, which collates the medical records of the national herd, found that use of colistin had fallen significantly.

Once the full 2016 data was released, the UK would likely be among the five lowest users of colistin in Europe, said RUMA chairman Gwyn Jones.

“We were looking for significant reductions in 2016 following best practice guidelines issued by the Pig Veterinary Society at the end of 2015, but this has exceeded our hopes,” Jones said. “It also follows hot on the heels of the announcement in February that prescribed antibiotics administered in feed for young pigs have halved, with more than two-thirds of that reduction taking place in 2016.”

The data showed the pig sector was “really engaging with this issue and making some very strong progress in reducing, refining and replacing antibiotics use” Jones said.

Reducing the use of colistin was important, as its use in humans had increased in recent years for the treatment of specific serious bacterial infections that are resistant to other antibiotics, added AHDB Pork veterinary team manager Mandy Nevel.

“This is why the European Medicines Agency has classified colistin as a highest priority ‘critically important antibiotic’ for the treatment of a number of human bacterial conditions, despite it being a very old drug,” she said.

“But, crucially, the regulators have also retained access for animal use because it also has importance as a last-resort drug to safeguard welfare in livestock,” she added. “It’s very positive to see the pig sector - vets and farmers together - responding to the responsibility of having continued access to this drug as a last resort and reducing use where possible.”

The figures showed that farmers and vets were taking the threat of antibacterial resistance seriously, said National Pig Association CEO Zoe Davies. “Despite what certain NGOs often spout, this is an industry that does what it says it will.”