The use of antibiotics in farming continues to come under scrutiny, with Shadow Defra Secretary Kerry McCarthy the latest to shine the spotlight with a call on the Government to establish formal targets to reduce usage on farms.
In a speech at the Antibiotics & Farming Conference held at the Institute of Child Health in London, Ms McCarthy claimed higher use of antibiotics in farming was undermining their effectiveness in human medicine.
"We know that just as there is a clear correlation between rising levels of human use of antibiotics and growing resistance, the same is true in agriculture," she said.
Accusing Defra Ministers of ’overseeing the demise of our antibiotics through their failure to act on this emerging public health crisis’, she said it was ’illogical for the Government to set measurable reduction targets for human health but not in veterinary use’.
Ms McCarthy has written a joint letter with Labour’s Shadow Health Secretar Heidi Alexander to Defra Secretary Liz Truss and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt urging them to ’respond positively to the European Parliament’s recent proposals to end the routine, preventative use of antibiotics in farming’.
She said Labour was calling for:
The alliance promoting responsible medicine use in farming said it was already working Government and experts on the possible establishment of targets to cut antibiotic use.
The Bristol MP's speech came in the week it emerged a group of powerful City investors had written to major food chains, including McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza, Burger King and JD Wetherspoon, calling on them to cut antibiotic usage in their supply chains.
The investors cited similar concerns to Ms McCarthy, who in her speech said farm animals accounted for almost two thirds of antibiotics used in Europe, and around 40 per cent in the UK
Routine mass medication of groups of animals, either on a purely preventative basis, or when just a few animals within the group are sick was 'still widespread', particularly in the pig industry, she added.
She said: "A number of veterinary medicines continue to be licensed for purely preventative disease prevention in the UK, even when no disease has been diagnosed in any of the animals on the farm."
Governments and their regulators must now act now to put the principles of 'responsible use' into practice."
She pointed out use of antibiotics in UK pigs and poultry in 2014 was 'at least three and a half times higher per unit of livestock than in these species in the Netherlands'.
"Both Denmark and the Netherlands have dramatically cut antibiotic use, yet both countries remain economically competitive and are among Europe's leading meat exporters," she said.
She cited the recent publication by the British Poultry Council of data showing a reduction in antibiotic usage across the industry – and of its strategies for ending routine use, as part of a voluntary scheme.
But she added: "My concern with voluntary schemes is that they rarely drive action at the pace we need.
"Government action, by contrast – including the setting of targets – helps to set a level playing field, to support those farmers that are making great strides and to ensure no one would have a competitive advantage from not taking action."
The Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA) defended the use of antibiotics in UK farming.
In a statement it said: “We welcome the shadow minister’s focus on the issue of antibiotic resistance and note her position on the role targets can play.
"Whilst there are many risks involved with target setting we can confirm that the UK livestock sector, through RUMA, has already agreed that it is keen to work with the authorities and appropriate specialists to develop meaningful, evidence-based targets on the use of antibiotics in farming.
“To achieve this, more evidence on actual usage of antibiotics and the impact of any reductions is essential to avoid the risk of setting inappropriate targets, which could be counterproductive and even lead to increased risk of resistance.
“Any benefits for public health need to be balanced against the impact of restricted antibiotic use on animal welfare, the economic viability of our farms and overall UK food security.
"Badly handled, there is a real risk we will end up importing produce which increases risk to human health if our own, highly-regulated industry is rendered unviable through arbitrary curbs.
“RUMA believes the best course of action is to move away from a fixation with reducing antibiotic use alone and help farmers improve animal health, reduce bacterial diseases and their need to use antibiotics.
"One route is for food businesses to work closely with their supply chains to give farmers the confidence, means and support to make any necessary changes. Another would be government support for accessing EU funding streams to help UK producers upgrade old buildings and invest in new technology.
“However, RUMA challenges Ms McCarthy’s statement that higher use of antibiotics in farming is undermining their effectiveness in human medicine.
Recent reports have indicated antibiotic resistant bacteria in humans and animals is – for the most part – genetically different; another study has confirmed farm animal use could be responsible for as few as one in every 370 clinical cases
“Despite this, resistance is a threat in animals too and the farming industry, as well as those looking after the health of horses and pets, must ‘do its bit’ to control spread."