The British Veterinary Association (BVA) has expressed its opposition to the introduction of ‘arbitrary’ targets for reducing antibiotic use in food production, in response to recommendations made today.
In his review on antimicrobials in agriculture, Jim O’Neill called for a global target to reduce antibiotic use in food production to an agreed level per kilogram of livestock and fish.
The review said it should be for individual countries to decide how best to achieve the targets, which must go alongside restrictions on the use of antibiotics important for humans.
Mr O’Neill, an economist and former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, published his review on Tuesday as part of a wider investigation into Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) commissioned by the Prime Minister.
It warned drug-resistant infections could kill an extra 10 million people across the world every year by 2050 if they are not tackled.
The report cited countries, particularly in Scandinavia, which have ‘advanced farming systems with very low levels of antibiotic use’, including Denmark which has combined low use with being one of the largest exporters of pork in the world.
“Reducing levels of use to that of Denmark for example, an average of less than 50 milligram (mg) of antibiotics used a year per kilogram (kg) of livestock in the country, may be a good starting point for such a target,” the report said.
“We think this would be feasible without harming the health of animals or the long-term productivity of farmers.”
But BVA president Sean Wensley expressed concern over the plan.
He said: “The use of antibiotics in agriculture is just one piece of the jigsaw when tackling AMR and we need to see increased collaboration between health sectors to ensure positive steps are taken to preserve these essential drugs for future generations, particularly as its accepted that the main driver for AMR globally is the use of antibiotics in human health.
“BVA is opposed to the introduction of arbitrary, non-evidence based target setting; such targets, to reduce antibiotic use, risk restricting vets’ ability to treat disease outbreaks in livestock, which could have serious public health and animal welfare implications.
“The current EU legislation on vets’ prescribing of antibiotics for all animals, including those intended for production, is robust and we would like to see equivalent legislation rolled out globally.”
While the review is highly relevant to the UK and EU, where efforts have been made to reduce antibiotic use - using antibiotics as growth promoters was banned in the EU in 2006, its main targets lie elsewhere.
Mr O’Neill’s review estimated antimicrobial use in food production globally was ‘at least as great as the amount used by humans’ and ‘far greater’ in some countries including the US, where more than 70 per cent of medically important antibiotics are used in animals.
Without better policies global usage is likely to grow by 67 per cent by 2030, the report predicted.
It said the risks associated with the high use of antimicrobials were threefold.
The report stressed, as in humans, the proper therapeutic use of antibiotics in animals is essential.
But it said significant volumes of antibiotics were also used either prophylactically among healthy animals, to stop the development of an infection within a flock or herd, or for growth promotion.
“Both uses are particularly prevalent in intensive agriculture, where animals are kept in confined conditions,” the report said.
The review acknowledged the impact of stopping use of antibiotics for growth promotion could be significant in ‘lower income settings’.
But it added: “There is no doubt though that prolonged exposure to antibiotics creates ideal conditions for the cultivation of drug resistance; and there is evidence to show that this can increase the localised prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria very significantly.”
The researchers carried a literature review of 280 published, peer-reviewed research articles that addressed antibiotic use in agriculture.
Of 139 academic studies, 100 (72 per cent) found evidence of a link between antibiotic consumption in animals and resistance in humans against only seven (five per cent) which argued that there was not a link.
"This suggests that antibiotic use in animals is a factor in promoting resistance in humans and provides enough justification for policy makers to aim to reduce global use in food production to a more optimal level," the review said.
The review also highlighted the recent Chinese study, which showed evidence of a bacterial gene conferring resistance to colistin, a last-resort antibiotic for treating multidrug-resistant infections bacteria in humans, but which is also used extensively in livestock in some countries, including in Europe.
“This has brought home the huge threat posed by the use of important human antibiotics in agriculture,” the review said.
The UK livestock sector has responded to the Chinese report by agreeing to voluntary restrictions on colistin while an EU risk assessment is undertaken.
Mr O’Neill said it was ‘staggering that in many countries, most of the consumption of antibiotics is in animals rather than humans’.
“This creates a big resistance risk for everyone, which was highlighted by the recent Chinese finding of resistance to colistin.
“As we’ve highlighted, most of the scientific research provides evidence to support curtailing antibiotic use in agriculture. It’s time for policymakers to act on this."
NOAH (National Office of Animal Health) welcomed the global approach outlined by the review but warned the proposals may not be workable.
Catherine Sayer, chair of NOAH, said: “Farmers and veterinary surgeons in the UK, supported by the animal medicines sector, use antibiotics responsibly – as little as possible, but as often as necessary.
"In the UK, organisations such as RUMA (Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture) are already making practical steps towards reducing antibiotic use, by setting out responsible use guidelines which aim to reduce the need for antibiotics through biosecurity, vaccination and other animal husbandry measures where possible.
"However, we must remember that animal species types, husbandry practices and climate conditions vary around the world. Any proposals to apply standards from, for example, Denmark to other parts of the EU and the world, may not be workable."
“Treating animals when needed is a legal responsibility. NOAH would oppose any proposals encouraging farmers not to treat sick animals, because of the negative animal welfare outcomes that would arise."
"In the UK, as well as the rest of the world, there are many more animals than there are people, which goes some way towards explaining why the use of antibiotics in animals, when measured in simple tonnage figures, is similar to that in people.
"Also, it must be remembered that a 600 kg cow will require a greater volume of antibiotic to treat an infection than an 80kg man."
Molly Scott Cato, Green MEP for the South West and a member of the European Parliament’s Agricultural Committee, said: "We agree with the conclusions of the report, that excessive and inappropriate deployment of antimicrobials in agriculture is leading to resistance, and this raises serious concerns for human and animal health.”
“Greens say that good farm hygiene must be implemented as a preventive measure against disease, before any recourse to medicines.
"There is clearly a link between intensive rearing and high density stocking and the spread of disease. We need to ensure that human and animal health is put before the interests and profits of industrial scale farming.”