The industry initiaitive’s aim is to create a joint strategy to tackle antimicrobial resistance

A group of major food manufacturers, retailers and industry bodies have teamed up to form a new industry initiative to tackle antimicrobial resistance and promote responsible antibiotic use.

The group includes manufacturing giants such as ABP, Arla, Cranswick and Bakkavor, the top seven biggest supermarket chains, and major foodservice operators such as Brakes, McDonald’s and Compass.

Launched at the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) conference in London this week, the group, known as the Food Industry Initiative on Antimicrobials, said it would be able to harness its members’ “collective power to influence activity and support best practice”.

Its main aim would be to “identify and implement a joint strategy to help reduce antibiotic use and tackle antimicrobial resistance, without compromising welfare standards”. 

Led by a strategic steering group, the initiative will be supported by three working groups.

One will look at the creating of a common set of principles for the responsible use of antibiotics at farm level, a second will enable data sharing across the supply chain on drug use, and a third will focus on R&D and how to tackle specific diseases with alternatives to antibiotics.

It comes as total sales of antibiotics in food-producing animals fell by 53% in the four years between 2014 and 2018, according to new data published by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate this week.

Sales of highest priority critically important antibiotics, which are of vital importance to human health, were also down, the VMD said. They fell by two-thirds during the same time period and now accounted for just 0.7% of total antibiotic sales.

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The reduction in sales was “testament to the improvements industry and the veterinary profession have made in antibiotic stewardship, training and disease control”, said chief vet Christine Middlemiss.

“The focus on infection prevention and control is key to reducing the need to treat with antibiotics and maintaining the UK’s world-leading standards in protecting animal health and biosecurity,” she added.

Meanwhile, a second annual review of progress on antibiotic reduction, also published this week by RUMA, revealed further progress towards farm antibiotic goals, “but with more to do”.

Progress had been made in terms of data collection, use of antibiotics, and uptake of preventative measures such as vaccines and training, RUMA said.

“Overall, we have a positive story, with antibiotic sales having more than halved in five years, but each livestock sector is in a very different place,” said RUMA chairman Gwyn Jones. “Even within a sector, there can be a wide range of results with some very progressive producers, and others yet to engage,” he stressed.

The poultry meat and laying hen sectors had maintained low antibiotic use and were below target. The gamebird sector has achieved its planned halving of antibiotic use early, while trout and salmon were near or below target. And with a 60% fall in antibiotic use over three years, the pig sector was on track to meet ambitious reductions by 2020. 

“However, disease is proving a major challenge, some of which is being exacerbated by climate change,” he warned. “There is also awareness of how much tougher it will get each year to deliver the changes needed; next steps could require investment or some brave decision-making for some.”