antibiotics in poultry, raw chicken drumstick and syringe

Sir, While advancements in farm animal health and hygiene that reduce the need for antibiotics should be welcomed, ‘antibiotic-free’ labelling risks misleading consumers and backfiring on welfare.

Aside from wrongly implying other products contain antibiotics, the issue itself is far more complex. Experts agree antibiotic resistance challenges in humans are largely down to medical use, and good kitchen hygiene and proper cooking of meat can almost completely prevent transmission through food. But resistant bacteria are found on large and small farms, organic and conventional, in pets and horses. They are all around us because resistance happens naturally as bacteria defend themselves; resistant bacteria millions of years old have been found in the ice caps.

Reducing use also doesn’t necessarily lessen resistance. Antibiotic use in Dutch pig finishing units has halved over the past 10 years but a recent study found a 25% increase in levels of livestock-associated MRSA at slaughter. Bacteria resistant to medically critical antibiotics have been found on farms that have never used that antibiotic. And would ‘antibiotic-free’ mean delayed treatment for sick livestock, or destruction of animals only needing a short course of medication?

Let’s not exploit this problem to promote products, ideologies or alternative production systems, and instead work together on sensible, science-based solutions.

Gwyn Jones, chair, Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) Alliance