A fall of 18% in sales of all antibiotics used to treat UK farm animals last year, and 29% in sales of highest priority critically-important antibiotics (HP-CIAs), has been welcomed by the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) Alliance.
The new data released this week by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) in its 2017 Veterinary Antimicrobial Resistance and Sales Surveillance (VARSS) report means that sales of veterinary antibiotics for use in farm animals have fallen by a total of 40% since 2013, and now sit at 37mg/kg.
The VMD’s surveillance programme also shows that resistance to antibiotics in bacterial isolates taken from food-producing animals remains low for most antibiotics, and is absent for others.
RUMA chair Gwyn Jones has praised the hard work undertaken to reach this point, with the UK one of the lowest users of antibiotics for farm animals in Europe. But he also cautions there is lots more to do in driving responsible use while safeguarding animal health and welfare and food safety. Engagement with efforts to improve data collection remains a key part of this.
“Because a large percentage of products are used to treat multiple species of animal, figures for actual use by species, on farms, are critical to understand patterns in individual sectors. They are also needed to help those sectors to monitor, improve and get recognition for their achievements – and to meet their 2020 antibiotic use targets,” explains Mr Jones.
He says most of the reductions over the past few years have come from first the poultry meat sector, then pig and gamebird sectors, which have all released comprehensive usage figures covering almost all their producers.
Smaller datasets are being accessed for dairy and beef – a big step forward – but national data on these sectors remains harder to capture due to their more diverse supply chains, the large number of producers involved and greater prevalence of mixed enterprise operations.
“This means we can’t be sure of how representative the figures are,” says Mr Jones. “For example, antibiotic usage figures in the 2017 VARSS report indicate that dairy cows fell from 26mg/kg in 2016 to 17mg/kg in 2017. This is based on one large dataset of veterinary practice prescriptions – the best we currently have – but we must be mindful that because this database covers 31% of dairy cows, it may not be typical of the whole dairy sector.
“Recent studies have also suggested that while few antibiotics are used in the best dairy operations, a small number of farms could be responsible for a large portion of use . Improving the quality of data collection can only help us better understand where we really are, and inform and advise those who need to change their practices.”
Similar issues have arisen in beef cattle with the relatively small dataset in the 2017 VARSS report suggesting antibiotic use at 19mg/kg, whereas it was previously considered to be lower. “A wide range across different types and stages of beef production is likely, but we won’t know unless we have meaningful national data from producers themselves.
“The same applies to the sheep sector, which is working very hard with great leadership on tackling usage ‘hotspots’, but currently lacks the data to quantify progress,” adds Mr Jones.
One solution could be around the corner in the form of an electronic Medicine Book (eMB) for cattle. Currently being run as a pilot project at the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), eMB-Cattle is being modelled on the successful eMB-Pigs, which – based on a Red Tractor assurance requirement – has secured antibiotic usage data for around 90% of the national pig herd in 2017.
In the meantime cattle and sheep farmers have responded positively to the call for responsible use, and individual veterinary practices, assurance schemes, retail supply chains and consultants have launched initiatives over the past two years to support them. These range from recording and benchmarking antibiotic use to systematic evaluation of current practices so that areas to improve stewardship can be identified.
RUMA will cover many of these initiatives in a ‘Targets Task Force: One-Year On’ report on progress against sector-specific goals, due to be released in November.