Antibiotic use on farms threatens pandemic ‘much bigger than Covid’, campaigners warn

Use of antibiotics on farm animals has decreased by 52 per cent since 2014, but some argue that doesn’t go far enough  (PA)
Use of antibiotics on farm animals has decreased by 52 per cent since 2014, but some argue that doesn’t go far enough (PA)

Overuse of antibiotics on farm animals could lead to a pandemic “much bigger than Covid,” campaigners have warned.

Health experts are calling for a ban on the use of low doses of antibiotics on healthy farm animals, saying the practice was breeding untreatable “superbugs” which could spread to humans.

Farmers often give animals a preventative low dose of antibiotics as an insurance policy against disease. But from 28 January, new EU legislation will prohibit all forms of routine antibiotic use in farming, including preventative treatments.

The government’s veterinary medicines directorate has begun a consultation about whether the UK should follow suit.

Use of antibiotics on farmed animals has decreased significantly over the past few years – a 52 per cent reduction since 2014 – but campaigners say this does not go far enough.

They are calling on the government to follow the EU and ban the practice of giving the drugs to healthy farm animals.

The UK’s Health Security Agency warned last month that antimicrobial resistance was a “hidden pandemic”, while the World Health Organisation has estimated drug-resistant diseases could killed 10 million people globally each year by 2050 if no action is taken.

Doctors are now trying to tackle patients’ overdependence on antibiotics by decreasing their prescription. Although 66 per cent of antibiotics are used by humans, a sizeable percentage – 26 per cent – are used on farm animals.

Suzi Shingler, campaign manager for the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, said: “If you imagine a big herd of pigs or chickens that are stressed and overcrowded, the immune suppression they get from this environment is really asking for disease and illness to spread. Instead of making changes to these conditions, it has been for decades cheaper and easier to give them all low levels of antibiotics in their feed and water.”

Ms Shingler warned low doses could significantly increase the risk of breeding untreatable bacteria. “Mass dosing creates the perfect breeding ground for the strongest type of bacteria to survive,” she said. “The worst elements will survive the long-term low dosing of antibiotics and it’s like supercharging the normal natural selection process of superbugs.”

These bacteria can make their way to humans through waterways, such as during wild swimming, as well as through undercooked meat products and effluent spread on fields.

Daniel Zeichner MP, the shadow food, farming and fisheries minister, said that while there has been “some progress to reduce antibiotics in farm animals, we need more ambition and urgency from this government”.

He added: “Farmers and the food industry should follow the voluntary code by stopping routinely using antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease in healthy animals, as the World Health Organisation has long advised.” He also called on the government to ensure that trade deals require “at least the same standards for imported animal products” as British farmers adhere to.

SNP MP Lisa Cameron, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Health, said that she was “deeply concerned about the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture” and warned of the “ease with which antimicrobial resistance can develop in humans”. She concluded that recommendations from the Health Select Committee on the issue should be “taken forward urgently”.

A 2018 inquiry by the committee warned of “serious concerns” about the use of antibiotics on healthy animals. They warned “attention must be paid to this following the UK’s departure from the EU” and recommended any future trade deals commit to the same standards in antibiotic use as the EU.

But Chris Lloyd, secretary general of the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (Ruma), said the UK has “got a positive story in terms of antibiotic use”. He said that there was a debate to be had about whether the UK followed Europe “because we’ve already done a lot of what the EU is trying to achieve”.

Ruma has been working with each of the UK farm animal sectors to raise awareness about the dangers of antimicrobial resistance.

Referring to the prospect of a ban, he said: “You can always do more and we continue to work on responsible use but our recent track record is a positive one.

“I’m not convinced that a black and white decision is the right one when the realities are often much more complex. Do we need more restrictions in the way antibiotics are used when we’ve done so well in reducing their use already?”

Christine Middlemiss, the UK’s chief veterinary officer, said Britain was making “important reductions” in antibiotic use on farm animals.

She promised to continue working closely with the industry and added: “It is encouraging to see farmers and vets continuing to work together to tackle antibiotic resistance.”

The National Farmers’ Union said its members had cut voluntarily cut antibiotic use by 52 per cent since 2014.

Catherine McLaughlin, the NFU’s chief animal health and welfare adviser, added: “We will consult with our members and respond accordingly when the detail of the Veterinary Medicines Directorate consultation comes out.”

Research carried out by World Animal Protection (WAP) last year found dangerous antibiotic resistant superbugs in rivers and lakes near factory farms in Spain, the USA, Canada and Thailand.

The group collected surface soil and dust particles from waterways upstream and downstream from pig farms in North Carolina, US. Eighty-three out of 90 samples came back positive for antimicrobial resistant genes, a “widespread contamination” that researchers concluded “strongly suggests factory farms are discharging resistance genes into public waterways”.

The group will be carrying out similar research in the UK next year.

Lindsay Duncan, UK campaign manager at WAP, said the coronavirus pandemic had shown how the issues emerging in one country were not confined there. She said: “If there are one or two bad players that’s still going to cause a problem for the rest of the world.

“It’s not just the case of the EU doing the right thing. We all need to be doing this and putting in this legislation. This is going to be the next major pandemic and it’s going to have a really big effect on people.”

Ms Duncan said antimicrobial resistance was “actually going to be much bigger than Covid” because the problem could not be solved with vaccines. “We can’t just produce vaccines for bacterial infections. These medicines have allowed us to live the way we do; having amazing life expectancies, heart transplants, major surgeries and recover well from them.”

She warned: “If antimicrobial resistance continues growing in the way that it is right now we are going to lose one of our most powerful medications. There is no fix for that, so it has to be addressed now.”