Antibiotics in farming: how foodservice can act to protect our drugs – and our health

By Emma Rose, Campaigns, Lobbying and Communications Specialist, Alliance to Save our Antibiotics

Since the discovery of penicillin in 1928, antibiotics have revolutionised modern medicine and saved millions of lives.

But the way we use and abuse antibiotics is propelling us towards a reality when drugs cease to work and routine operations become impossible. Antibiotic resistance is now globally acknowledged as one of the biggest existing threats to human health.

In response to this growing crisis, the spotlight is being shone on prescribers of human medicine, with GPs urged to rein in prescribing and save drugs for when they are most needed. However, the huge quantities of antibiotics used in the world’s farming systems tend to escape scrutiny.

Farm animals account for around 40% of total antibiotic use in the UK. Drugs are often given to animals routinely, preventatively, even when no disease has been diagnosed in any of the animals being treated. Farmers are permitted to give animals antibiotics classed as ‘critically important’ for humans, and the use of these drugs on farms has increased by 35% over the last four years.

Organisations including the World Health Organisation and the European Food Standards Agency are in consensus: routine, excessive dosing of animals is encouraging the emergence of resistant bacteria, contributing to resistance in human infections and stripping our drugs of their ability to cure.

Concern is rising fast. A recent petition hosted in June 2015 by consumer network Avaaz gathered over 80,000 UK signatories from concerned members of the public calling for steps to address overuse of antibiotics in farming. Policy makers are under pressure to curb use of antibiotics in farming, and even representatives from the medical profession are speaking out.

Industry is also feeling the pressure. Just a few days ago, food providers in the US were ranked on their antibiotic usage. At the same time,

Young white hen looking in a chicken poultry farm.
Young white hen looking in a chicken poultry farm.

shareholder resolution at McDonalds put pressure on the business to ban non-therapeutic antibiotic use in supply chains and the burger giant has pledged that its US restaurants will be free of such antibiotics within two years. 2 Sisters Food Group, one of the largest chicken producers in the UK, has already made a commitment around responsible usage, and from 1 October Arla will require producers to move towards selective dry-cow therapy, rather than blanket application.

There are a number of ways in which the foodservice industry can demonstrate leadership and help make a difference. The Alliance to Save our Antibiotics is working with food providers to support commitments around this issue; by supporting businesses to create and adopt a company policy around responsible antibiotic usage. This policy may take the shape of a timeline to phase out routine, preventative use of antibiotics, or plans to reduce use of the ‘critically important’ antibiotics in supply chains.

The time this takes may vary according to the supply chain arrangements of an individual company. Engaging the full supply chain is crucial to ensure that policies work in practice, and that reductions in antibiotics can be appropriately offset by improvements to animal husbandry and hygiene.

With the EU Veterinary Medicines legislation currently proposing restrictions to routine, preventative farm-antibiotic use, companies who begin to take action now will be well-placed to respond to forthcoming regulatory changes.

What’s more, food providers will be able to provide welcome reassurance to stakeholders, clients, and the public that they are taking this issue seriously. With a recent survey showing that more than two thirds of Brits think animals shouldn’t be routinely dosed with antibiotics, it is only a matter of time before purchasing patterns begin to reflect this. Foodservice providers are well placed to act ahead of the curve.

Get in touch with the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics: Emma Rose ([email protected])


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