A new report by campaign group the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics is calling for the government to take a strong stance against the overuse of farm antibiotics, to protect public health and fight the global rise of antibiotic resistance.
The report finds that the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, which are all in trade negotiations with the UK, give antibiotics to livestock to make them grow faster, a practice which has been illegal across the EU since 2006. In 2022, the EU will ban the importation of meat and dairy produced in this way, but the UK government has not clearly committed to implementing the ban.
These four countries also allow an antibiotic to be added to hormone growth-promoting implants given to cattle, to prevent infections at the implant site. The most widely used antibiotic in hormone implants is tylosin, which is classified by the WHO as a high-priority critically important antibiotic in human medicine because a very closely related antibiotic is one of the few medicines that works to treat serious human Campylobacter infections.
Cóilín Nunan of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics said: “Any new trade deals must not undermine British standards and threaten public health by allowing cheap meat and dairy produced with antibiotic growth promoters into the UK. It’s also particularly unacceptable that a high-priority critically important antibiotic is being used to control infections caused by hormone growth promotion.”
Most antibiotics used for growth promotion in these four countries are not used in human medicine. But one growth promoter used in the US, bacitracin, is classified as medically important by the World Health Organization (WHO). There is also scientific evidence that the use of bacitracin in livestock may increase levels of resistance to an antibiotic of last resort, called colistin, which is used to treat life-threatening infections in humans which do not respond other drugs.
The US also uses the antibiotic carbadox as a growth promoter in pigs, even though it is completely banned in Europe because it has been shown to be carcinogenic in some animals. US authorities are currently considering banning carbadox, but the American pig industry is opposing the move.
Several other antibiotics used as growth promoters in the US, Australia and New Zealand are no longer permitted to be used in British or European livestock in any form.
The new report shows that overall farm antibiotic use per animal is about five times higher in the US and Canada compared with the UK, with use in US cattle being about seven times higher. Antibiotic use per animal in Australian poultry is over 16 times higher than in the UK while in Australian pigs it is nearly three times higher, although use in Australian cattle and sheep appears to be low.
British farm antibiotic use fell by about 50% between 2014 and 2018, partly due to a variety of voluntary industry initiatives. Unfortunately recently published data for 2019 showed a 5% increase in use.