It follows a 5% increase in the use of antibiotics in the UK food chain last year

A coalition of agrifood bodies has warned against the “demonising” of antibiotics in food production.

The Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture alliance stressed the UK was among the global leaders in antibiotic reduction while the drugs remained “a vital tool for animal health” after campaign group the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics highlighted a 5% increase in usage in the UK food chain last year.

Drawing on government data, ASOA last month said the increase in overall antibiotic usage was “disappointing”, with usage in the pig sector particularly too high.

“Major improvements” to husbandry were needed to protect animal health and welfare, said ASOA spokesman Cóilín Nunan. 

“The government must also commit to banning all preventative mass medication,” he added, while pointing to the fact “increased imports in years to come of cheaper, non-EU, meat and dairy produced with routine antibiotic use could lead to British farmers being outcompeted unless they lower their own standards and return to higher antibiotic use”.

Nunan’s warnings were reinforced last week, when the ASOA published a new report that revealed evidence of significant overuse of antibiotics on farm animals in the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada – which all allowed farmers to routinely treat animals with antibiotics to grow faster.

However, RUMA chair Cat McLaughlin stressed the UK had halved total antibiotic sales since 2014 and cut use of the most important antibiotics by 75% through a series of “unique voluntary initiatives” .

This left the UK with the fifth-lowest sales of antibiotics used in food production in Europe, with only far Nordic countries lower, she added, while RUMA had also recently unveiled new reduction targets for 2021-24, designed to continue its progress on the matter.

“Let me be clear, making judgements based solely on top line figures risks the demonising of any antibiotic use irrespective of how and why it is being used, and this cannot be allowed to happen,” she said.

“Antibiotics remain a vital tool for the protection of animal health and welfare, and it is important that any data on antibiotic usage or sales is reviewed in that light. There will always be disease challenges, and when these affect sectors – as we saw with pigs and broilers last year – vets and farmers need to be able to respond with all the appropriate tools available, even antibiotics.”

Some of the rapid reductions in antibiotic use we have seen so far in the UK have been achieved by focusing on reducing prophylactic and continual use, McLaughlin said.

“Now these have been largely eliminated, further reductions are likely to be harder to achieve and will require a focus on preventing disease and improving farm management,” she added.

“We always knew that at some point we would see this levelling off, and with more than three quarters of the sector-specific goals set by our vet- and farmer-led Targets Task Force in 2017 now achieved, a ‘reset’ is timely. This has been delivered in a new set of targets released last month, which show our sectors are investing in the combined skills of vets and farmers to maintain momentum around responsible use.”