The UK livestock and animal health industry has accepted more needs to be done to reduce the use of antibiotics in farming but has sought to put the human health risk in context, following a BBC Panorama programme on the subject last night.
Hot on the heels of the publication of the O’Neill report, which called for global action to address the issue of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) to human drugs, Panorama explored farming’s role in the ’antibiotic crisis’.
The programme described growing resistance to commonly prescribed antibiotics as ’one of the biggest public health threats of modern times’, with the potential to cause 80,000 deaths in the UK over the next 20 years.
Presenter Tom Heap interviewed patients who had picked up untreatable bugs and linked the trend to antibiotic usage on farms, notably in China following the discovery of a new bug showing resistance to colistin, which had been used to treat livestock but not humans.
Mr Heap tested manure samples collected from around farms, finding drug resistant bacteria in some, including some from organic farms, but not others.
It featured calls, including from Lord Jim O’Neill, author of the Government-commissioned review on AMR, for antibiotics deemed to be critical for human medicine to be banned in livestock.
However, the programme addressed the health and welfare implications of such action in an interview with National Pig Association chairman Richard Lister and acknowledged the economic context underlying livestock production in the UK.
RUMA, the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance of livestock and animal health organisations, responded by agreeing, while action is critical, the debate needs to be placed in a ‘One Health’ context.
RUMA chairman Gwyn Jones said the farming industry ’fully recognised concerns about growing resistance to antibiotics’, but stressed resistance in humans was largely attributed to human medical use.
He cited a recent study confirming farm animal use could be responsible for as few as one in every 370 clinical cases.
He said: “Despite this, the farming industry and those looking after the health of companion animals must ‘do their bit’ to control spread of resistance.
"This is why RUMA announced last week it is setting up an industry task force to look at how meaningful targets can be developed to replace, reduce and refine antibiotic use in UK agriculture.”
Mr Jones said UK livestock sector was already focused on reducing use of antibiotics deemed critically important for human medicine (CIAs). Addressing issues raised in the programme, he said:
Mr Jones said RUMA welcomed the programme's recognition the withdrawal of some antibiotics from agricultural use could have wide-ranging impacts on welfare and the price of food.
“Interventions are not without consequence. Bacterial infections and associated inflammation undoubtedly cause pain and discomfort to animals.
"The treatment of such infections is a requirement of both national and EU animal welfare legislation and all vets are under oath to protect the health and welfare of the animals in their care,” Mr Jones said.
“Any benefits for public health need to be clear, and 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.
“The focus needs to be on appropriate animal husbandry practice and nutrition with a focus on protecting animals from disease thus removing the need for them to be treated with antimicrobials in the first place.”
He described the ‘intensive vs extensive’ farming debate in the context of AMR as 'misleading'.
“Intensity is not a factor in antimicrobial resistance and as indicated in the programme, there is no evidence that extensive farming systems or those with low antibiotic use experience less prevalence or maintenance of bacterial strains of potential concern to public health.
“As the UK government states, resistance is a natural biological phenomenon which can be increased and accelerated by the various factors we are all – in human and animal medicine – trying to address,” said Mr Jones.
NPA chairman Richard Lister told the programme the pig industry was 'one hundred percent committed to a process of antibiotic reduction' and said the industry had nothing to hide regarding its use of antibiotics.
He said: "Some farms are coping with very little usage, or no usage; other farms have health problems. But we are very little users of critically important antibiotics within the pig industry."
The programme cited NPA's recently launched Pig Industry Antibiotic Stewardship Programme.
RUMA members are: