The warning was made after it emerged this week that a group of wealthy City investors had written to leading fast food, pub and restaurant chains urging them to take ’immediate action to reduce antibiotic use in their meat and poultry supply chains’.
The actions of the investors, reported to include Aviva Investors, Strathclyde Pension Fund and Coller Capital, reflect growing concern over resistance to antibiotics classified as ‘critically important’ to human health which are also used on farms.
Warnings the world was on the verge of a ‘post-antibiotic era’ were issued last year after the discovery in China of antibiotic resistance in humans and livestock to a drug used to treat e.coli.
The letter was sent to a number of companies, including McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza, Burger King, JD Wetherspoon, and Mitchells and Butlers, the company behind the Harvester, All Bar One and Toby Carvery chains, according to The Guardian.
The letter claimed about 80 per cent of all antibiotics used in the US and 45 per cent in the UK were given to farm animals, suggesting this posed ‘a significant risk of drug-resistant bacteria developing’.
It said, while antibiotics should be used for the treatment of sick animals, they ‘should not be used to support irresponsible practices such as growth promotion or routine disease prevention of animals kept in closely confined and unsanitary conditions’.
The letter said: “Negative media coverage and civil society campaigning can harm sales and affect consumer loyalty; a matter of particular concern for fast-food chains whose customers can easily shift their spending habits.”
Jeremy Coller, the founder of one of the investors Coller Capital, said:
“The world is changing, regulation on antibiotic use is set to tighten and consumer preferences are shifting away from factory-farmed food.
"As stewards of these food companies and responsible investors, we want to protect both human health and shareholder value.”
The industry alliance, the Responsible the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA) hit back, pointing out food companies were already working with their supply chains to reduce the need for antibiotic use in farm animals.
It stressed antibiotic resistance in humans was largely attributed to human medical use and cited a recent study showing farm animal use could be responsible for ’as few as one in every 370 clinical cases’.
However, the farming industry must ‘do its bit’ to address resistance in animals, RUMA said.
But it added: “It is critical that potential impacts on welfare, food safety, product quality and investment are fully understood by the businesses involved so that farmers have the confidence, means and support to make any necessary changes.
“It is equally important this issue does not end up being exploited as a marketing tool.
"There is a risk that misrepresentation of facts and a failure to appreciate the situation in different countries could end up harming welfare, cause unnecessary suffering and lead to significant losses in our farm livestock sector."
"For example, while a reported 70 per cent of antibiotics in the US might be used to tackle disease challenges in farm animals, it’s only 40 per ceny in the UK, with Public Health England figures showing medical use of antibiotics is actually 2.4 times that of veterinary, based on kg per biomass (i.e. when corrected for number and weight of animals and people).
"Furthermore, use of antibiotics as growth promoters has been banned in the EU since 2006; antibiotics are only available in the UK on prescription from vets; and the industry has already opted for restrictions to use a number of antibiotics classed as critically important for human health, such as 3rd and 4th generation cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones and colistin, only when truly necessary.”
The British Poultry Council (BPC) has published a report this week showing how members of a national poultry scheme promoting responsible use of antibiotics had managed to cut usage by 44 per cent while increasing productivity over a three-year period.