Calls by senior medics for the government to immediately ban the routine use of antibiotics in UK farming have been slammed as harmful to animal welfare by a food industry coalition.
A letter calling for action on antibiotic use and signed by 15 senior medics - including the heads of the British Medical Association, Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of General Practitioners - was sent to environment secretary Andrea Leadsom and health secretary Jeremy Hunt today (14 November) by pressure group the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics.
It said the government was now in a “unique position” to put the recommendations of the O’Neill Review on Antibiotic Resistance into practice as part of a post-EU referendum strategy for UK agriculture, and to ban the preventative use of antibiotics in agriculture.
“The recent discovery of antibiotic resistant e.coli and MRSA on UK-origin meat from major supermarkets is the latest sign that such practices are undermining the efficacy of our antibiotics,” the letter claimed. It urged the government to support a March European parliament vote in favour of such a ban.
“In light of the UK’s forthcoming exit from the EU, there is a clear need for unambiguous domestic policies, which ensure that antibiotics are used judiciously in human and animal medicine,” added Royal College of Physicians president Professor Jane Dacre.
“The use of important antibiotics to routinely mass-medicate groups of livestock does not constitute judicious use, and should have no place in any antibiotic reduction strategy for the UK,” she added.
However, the letter was described as “exceptionally disappointing considering the strong directive from those heading human and animal medicine in the UK to stop the ‘blame game’ on antimicrobial resistance”, said the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) coalition, which described “this sort of orchestrated rhetoric, supported by scant facts” as potentially harmful to the health and welfare of farm animals, pets and horses.
In a statement, RUMA, which counts the AHDB, Red Tractor Assurance, the RSPCA and a host of food industry bodies among its members, insisted the UK farming industry was taking the threat of antibiotic resistance seriously, with total antibiotic use in poultry meat production falling by 43% between 2012 and 2015.
The UK was “among the lower users of antibiotics in farming within the EU” and, in reducing use by some 60% in the past six years, was now at approximately the same usage levels as the Netherlands.
“While we rise to the challenge the government has set of reducing antibiotic use in farming by around 20% by 2018, we are pushing ahead with setting our own sector-specific objectives to cut and refine use through a RUMA-led Targets Task Force set up earlier this year,” it added.
“On method of treatment, we need to be clear. Taking away the option, without good reason, to treat preventatively or to administer treatment in the most effective manner, or to restrict certain products already being used responsibly and at very low levels, risks creating more severe disease problems and poor welfare.”