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Call for Govt to Act over Antibiotic Resistance

by 5m Editor
19 November 2009, at 6:02am

UK - The Soil Association has called on the government to act over what is calls an escalating farm antibiotic resistance problem.

The Soil Association welcomes the UK’s involvement in the second European Antibiotic Awareness Day, yesterday (18 November) but is calling on the Government to give as much attention to reducing the over-use of antibiotics on farms and in veterinary surgeries as it gives to hospitals and doctors surgeries.

As last year, the Awareness Day will primarily target doctors, nurses, pharmacists and the general public, with the aim of reducing the overuse of antibiotics in human medicine. Unfortunately, much less effort is being put into targeting vets and farmers.

This is despite the fact that, according to a Government report published in 2007, over 53 per cent of antibiotics used in the UK are given to animals, mostly in food or water. About 90 per cent of veterinary antibiotic use is in farm animals.

Excessive antibiotic use in farm animals leads to higher levels of antibiotic resistance, which can have consequences for animal health and welfare, as diseases become untreatable, and for human health, when resistant bacteria transfer from animals to humans.

According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), resistant salmonella and campylobacter involved in human disease are mostly spread through foods. Highly antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA and ESBL E. coli have also recently emerged in farm animals in most countries, and can sometimes be passed to humans.

Sir Liam Donaldson, the UK's Chief Medical Officer, has referred to the 'irresponsible antibiotic use in the agricultural sector', and said "Resistant bacteria developing in animals could pose a threat to people. Antibiotics must be used in moderation in agricultural settings and only when necessary for animal welfare."

Despite this, the Soil Association says that the Government does not take a direct role in advising vets or farmers on how to minimise antibiotic use or the development of resistance. Instead it works through the quasi-commercial Veterinary Medicines Directorate which relies heavily on funding from both drug companies and farmers. The Government even supports the continued advertising of antibiotics directly to farmers.

An incredible 96 per cent of farm antibiotics are used in pigs and poultry, the two most intensively farmed species. Even though there are over seven times as many sheep in the UK as there are pigs, total antibiotic use in the pig sector is over 115 times higher than it is in sheep farming. This is because sheep are usually farmed outdoors, while pigs, like chickens, are generally kept in unnatural factory-farming conditions and antibiotics are used to control the spread of disease, says the Soil Association.

Soil Association Policy Adviser, Richard Young, said: "Most vets and farmers approach the use of antibiotics responsibly but this is not universally the case. There is also a very low level of awareness of the resistance problems currently developing on British farms and how to prevent these spreading. As such, the Government must actively engage with all sections of the livestock industry, as it has done with the medical profession and the public.

"Many large-scale producers are locked into highly intensive methods in an attempt to compete with cheap foreign imports. Using extra antibiotics is still the most cost-effective option for these producers and that raises questions for society, to which the Government, supermarkets, consumer groups and others need to give urgent consideration."