Antibiotics in agriculture spark a food health debate

Cattle at Roger Long's farm in Scarning. Picture: Matthew Usher

Cattle at Roger Long's farm in Scarning. Picture: Matthew Usher - Credit: Matthew Usher

The use of antibiotics to treat livestock is creating resistant bacteria which represent a critical risk to human health, according to a new report. CHRIS HILL asked the region's farmers and vets what can be done to reduce reliance on these drugs.

Scarning cattle dealer Roger Long. Picture: Matthew Usher

Scarning cattle dealer Roger Long. Picture: Matthew Usher - Credit: Matthew Usher

Recent months have brought a series of high-profile health warnings relating to agriculture and the food chain, ranging from sugar's impact on obesity to the cancer risks from processed meat.

And this week, East Anglia's farming industry has reacted to the latest national concern – the 'huge threat' to public health caused by the widespread use of antibiotics to treat livestock for conditions ranging from pneumonia to lameness.

The stark warning was issued in the government-commissioned Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, led by antibiotics tsar Jim O'Neill.

The report says prolonged exposure to antibiotics creates 'ideal conditions for the cultivation of drug resistance', allowing the development of resistant bacterial infections which could be transferred from animals to humans.

The risk is that so-called superbugs will develop and spread, whether through direct contact between humans and animals, consumption of undercooked meat, or from animal waste, the report said.

The problem was highlighted last month when researchers in China, while testing an intensively-farmed pig, identified a bacterial gene conferring resistance to colistin, a 'last resort' antibiotic for treating drug-resistant infections in humans.

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A phased reduction of antibiotics in agriculture is recommended by the review, suggesting countries could have agreed limits on their use over the next 10 years.

But East Anglia's farmers and vets said any arbitrary restrictions could have a detrimental impact on animal health and welfare standards, while great efforts are already being taken to use antibiotics responsibly – 'as little as possible, but as often as necessary'.

Roger Long is a cattle dealer based in Scarning, near Dereham, and is also a Norfolk delegate on the National Farmers' Union (NFU) regional livestock board.

He said: 'We have to be very sensible about what we are doing, but we need sense on both sides. If there is truth in these reports then we must not be held to ransom by scare-mongering from China.

'Yes, we must be vigilant and watch what we are doing, but we need to have more facts and it is frustrating that all these things keep coming up when we are all doing our best.

'We all need to eat, and we supply people's food safely, to the highest standard with the highest welfare conditions in Europe, with the greatest amount of traceability, so we should be given a fair hearing.

'The last thing anyone wants is for the animal to suffer if it has a problem. So we use these drugs as sparingly as needed, but we try and combat these conditions beforehand.

'Good husbandry is very important. It is all about breeding, feeding and housing, whether that's cattle, sheep or pigs. If we can work on these three things to start with, we can minimise the amount of drugs and medication that are needed.

'You have got to be able to spot these conditions early rather than just using lots of drugs to cure them afterwards.

'But, having said that, the weather conditions this autumn have been horrendous for livestock. We have had the damp nights and the warm days and the change in humidity is not good for the animals, so whatever you do, you need medication.

'If we lose that from your armoury, then I don't know what we will do.'

Mr Long said there were very strict guidelines governing the administration of medication to farm animals.

'From the producers point of view, whatever drugs we use on the farm, they all have withdrawal dates on them. Nothing can go into the food chain after that date. Every drug that is used must be accounted for in our veterinary medicine book and that is a statutory record that can be inspected at any time, by any one of the authorities.'

NFU chief adviser for animal health and welfare, Cat McLaughlin, added: 'The NFU is disappointed with the lack of context and consultation in the independent Review of Antimicrobial Resistance.

'Arbitrary restrictions on the use of antibiotics and various other pharmaceutical products such as fungicides could have a detrimental impact on animal and plant health. Antibiotics should be used in a responsible manner – as little as possible but as much as needed. Antibiotics are not used as growth promoters in the UK – this is, in fact, illegal.'

Following the publication of the report, Lord O'Neill said: 'I find it 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 – an important last-resort antibiotic which has been used extensively in animals.

'As we've highlighted, most of the scientific research provides evidence to support curtailing antibiotic use in agriculture, it's time for policy makers to act on this. We need to radically reduce global use of antibiotics and to do this we need world leaders to agree to an ambitious target to lower levels, along with restricting the use of antibiotics important to humans.'

Catherine Sayer, chairman of the National Office of Animal Health (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.

'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 consumers have come to encourage and expect high standards of welfare which means that animals need to be looked after and treated when they are sick.'

Veterinary viewpoint

Ian Roper is regional director for Westpoint Farm Vets' eastern division, which includes a practice in King's Lynn.

He said: 'The build-up of antibiotic resistance in agriculture is potentially one of those areas of concern, but we don't really know how big an impact our area is playing – however, we all see it as a collective responsibility to reduce it. Everyone who uses antibiotics has a responsibility to use them properly, and only when necessary.

'Our main focus should be reducing the use of antibiotics. The way farmers can help us do that is to really focus on communications, and I would encourage them to discuss with their vet how they can play their part. It is about making a management decision to reduce the need for it, which could mean embarking on vaccinations for different syndromes or diseases which reduces the need for antibiotics, or it could be to do with the way the animals are grouped, or their buildings and bedding.

'It is about ethos and culture. Some farmers feel they have a responsibility to reduce antibiotics, and will work with vets to limit their use. Others have been using antibiotics for years, and it does the job they want, so they are minded to ask their vets for more of the same. 'Whatever pressure is put on them, vets have got to show leadership. They are the ones prescribing it, and they make the decisions on whether an antibiotic is right or not. It will help the vets to do that if the farmers seek to look for preventative strategies. If the strategies and systems are not in place, the animals are more prone to getting infections and can suffer and even die, so animal welfare and health concerns both need to be taken into consideration.

'I think the industry has taken a lot of steps to reduce antibiotic use, and real strides have been made, but we are not the whole way there yet.'

Public health perspective

Dr Louise Smith, Norfolk's director of public health, explained the vital importance of preserving the effectiveness of antibiotics in human medicine.

'Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats facing us today,' she said.

'Without effective antibiotics many routine treatments will become increasingly dangerous. Setting broken bones, basic operations, even chemotherapy, all rely on access to antibiotics that work.

'One of the most important steps we can all take is to cut out the unnecessary use of antibiotics, as the more we use them, the more chance there is of developing resistance to them and this makes treating bacterial infections much more difficult. We should only use antibiotics when absolutely necessary.

'Norfolk County Council is supporting the Antibiotic Guardian initiative, developed by Public Health England (PHE), urging members of the public and healthcare professionals to join in the campaign and take action and help make sure antibiotics work now and in the future.'