The chief medical officer for England, Dame Sally Davies, has repeatedly said that the rapidly increasing resistance to antibiotics and the rise of resistant “superbugs” is one of the greatest threats to human health, which could make even routine operations life-threatening in future.
A taskforce has been set up among organisations leading the UK’s pig, dairy and poultry farming sectors. It will attempt to bring down the number of antibiotics commonly used in these sectors, with the assistance of vets and farmers.
The announcement came as the government said sales of antibiotics to treat animals in the UK had fallen by 27% in the two years from 2014 to 2016. There was also a drop of 83% in sales of colistin, an antibiotic of last resort that is critical for human health, and which the World Health Organization says should be reserved for human use and almost never used in animals.
The drop in sales recorded by Defra concerns antibiotics purchased from vets in the UK. An investigation by the Guardian in 2015 found that strong antibiotics were easily available for purchase, unrecorded, through the internet.
John Gardiner, minister for rural affairs and biosecurity, said: “The UK is at the forefront of global efforts to tackle antibiotic resistance. The fact we have overtaken our target two years ahead of schedule demonstrates our commitment to preventing the inappropriate use of antibiotics and shows our approach is working.
Activist groups concerned about the overuse of antibiotics pointed out that the UK’s current performance on using such medicines in farming lags well behind comparable farming practices in other parts of Europe.
For instance, the routine use of antibiotics is highest in the pig farming industry, where the amount of such medicine used in the UK is four times higher than in Denmark and the Netherlands, and 12 times higher than the rate in Sweden, according to the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, which comprises several groups including the Soil Association.
In the UK, the main use of antibiotics in pig rearing is to treat post-weaning diarrhoea among piglets. This is a frequent complaint when piglets are taken from their mothers too soon. An alternative to antibiotic use would be to leave piglets with their mothers for a few weeks longer, but this is unpopular because it would incur higher costs for the pig farmers.
One of the reasons for the reduction in antibiotic use in pig farming is believed to be the increase in use of zinc oxide, which studies have suggested can increase antimicrobial resistance and encourage the growth of the superbug MRSA, which a Guardian investigation revealed was increasingly found in UK pig products. Use of zinc oxide will be banned by the EU from 2022.
Suzi Shingler, campaign manager for the Alliance of the Save Our Antibiotics, said: “Using zinc oxide to cut antibiotic use is not a sustainable solution and contributes to antibiotic resistance. The pig industry is suggesting that a ban on zinc oxide may lead to more antibiotic use again, but that would also be unacceptable.
“Instead, pig farmers should be looking to reduce post-weaning diarrhoea by improving husbandry, including moving to later weaning and using breeds of sows that are able to care better for the number of piglets they produce.”
The taskforce set up to encourage reductions in antibiotic use was announced by the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (Ruma), a group comprising vets and farming industry representatives that celebrated its 20th year on Friday.
The taskforce is the first such effort of its kind. Ruma said the taskforce member and president of the Pig Veterinary Society, Mark White, hailed the “significant milestone in the first year of concerted efforts to reduce antibiotic use”.