UK may have weakest farm antibiotics regulations in Western Europe after Brexit

UK may have weakest farm antibiotics regulations in Western Europe after Brexit

Health and environmental protections are at risk post-Brexit if the UK diverges from EU regulations and allows preventative mass medication of livestock with antibiotics to continue, according to a new report by the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics [1].

“Swann song” for routine antibiotic use, 50 years on? warns that increased competition post-Brexit from imports produced to lower standards could undermine and reverse recent reductions in British farm antibiotic use. The report states that if the government pursues trade deals with countries farming to lower standards, health and environmental protections may be threatened.

The report is published exactly 50 years after a seminal government report – the Swann report – concluded that the overuse of antibiotics in farming was a threat to human health which had already caused human deaths [2].

The Swann report said the intensification of livestock farming had led to more disease problems and that it could not find “any excuse in logic or theory” for the practice of feeding antibiotics preventatively to groups of animals.

Fifty years later, intensive farming is still associated with major disease problems, and mass medication with antibiotics, or other forms of medication, remains common [3].

In recent years, many farmers have voluntarily limited preventative antibiotic use, which has contributed to a 50% reduction in antibiotic use. Despite this good progress, use remains higher than it was before Swann [4].

In 2018, the European Parliament voted to end the practice of treating groups of healthy animals with antibiotics. The ban will come into force in 2022, after the UK’s planned exit from the European Union. So far, the UK has refused to commit to the same ban after Brexit, despite senior medics calling on the then Health and Environment Secretaries to do so in 2018 [5].

Cóilín Nunan, Scientific Adviser at the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, said: “50 years ago the Swann committee gave in to pressure from vested interests and failed to recommend an end to preventative mass medication, even though it knew the practice was unjustifiable and the cause of a deadly outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella. Half a century later, still no one has come forward with a valid reason for allowing this misuse of antibiotics to continue.

“The good progress that has been made in the UK in recent years through voluntary action is now at risk if the UK decides to undercut EU regulations and open the British market to cheap imports produced with very high antibiotic use. Increased competition may convince some farmers to reverse cuts in antibiotic use, presenting us all with the double threat of low-quality imports and a race to the bottom in UK farming.

“Any future government must implement a complete ban on preventative mass medication as a step towards sustainable and responsible farm antibiotic use. Future trade deals should only allow imports produced to UK antibiotic and animal-welfare standards and import tariffs should reflect the benefits of higher-welfare systems, such as grass-fed or organic”.

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For more information, contact Clem Teagle: cteagle@soilassociation.org / 07703 835931

Notes to Editors

  1. “Swann song” for routine antibiotic use, 50 years on?
  2. Use of antibiotics in animal husbandry and veterinary medicine (Swann Report), https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1969/nov/20/use-of-antibiotics-in-animal-husbandry
  3. The poultry industry has made large reductions in its use of medically important antibiotics in the last five years, but its use of antibiotics called ionophores, which are not currently used in human medicine, has increased to record levels during that time. Some scientists believe that ionophores could be useful for treating certain human infections. There is also evidence that ionophores can increase resistance to medically important antibiotics in poultry. The pig industry has also made large cuts in antibiotic use, but is using record levels of zinc oxide in piglet feed to control post-weaning diarrhoea. Zinc oxide is an environmental pollutant which also increases resistance to medically important antibiotics in piglets. The EU will be banning the use of high doses of zinc oxide in piglet feed in 2022.
  4. Veterinary Antimicrobial Resistance and Sales Surveillance 2018, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/veterinary-antimicrobial-resistance-and-sales-surveillance-2018
  5. UK medics call for government ban to cut antibiotic resistance, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/nov/16/uk-medics-call-for-government-ban-to-cut-antibiotic-resistance

The Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics is an alliance of health, medical, environmental and animal-welfare groups working to stop the overuse of antibiotics in animal farming. It was founded by the Soil Association, Compassion in World Farming International and Sustain in 2009. Its vision is a world in which human and animal health and well-being are protected by food and farming systems that do not rely routinely on antibiotics and related drugs.