Supermarket superbugs

SUPERMARKET SUPERBUGS: A year on, which supermarkets have taken action?

In September 2016, our investigation revealed E.coli resistant to multiple crucial antibiotics on pig and chicken meat from seven major UK supermarkets. 

Following this we called on the supermarkets to take action, and we were supported by the FSA, which committed to work with supermarkets to reduce antibiotic use.

In 2017 we undertook an assessment of the antibiotics policies of nine of the UK’s largest supermarkets. We wanted to investigate which businesses had taken concrete action to reduce the amount of antibiotics being used in their supply chains.

We assessed the publicly available policies of the supermarkets, as policies regarding food for public consumption should be published in the public interest. You can find the policies of each of the supermarkets here: Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Lidl*, M&S, Morrisons, Sainsbury's, Tesco, Waitrose.
*since publishing our report, Lidl have published an antibiotics policy. It has not been included in our report as our report was published prior to this. 

What we found


[i]Aldi: public position on antibiotic use is available, put not the policy
[ii] Aldi: not banned, however “prophylaxis only permitted under the direct instruction of a veterinary surgeon.  Producers must retain a record as to why prophylaxis was necessary, and have a management strategy on how to prevent future prophylaxis.”
[iii] Co-op: Not mentioned in the policy, but reference to “working to avoid the use of antibiotics that are important to human medicine” can be seen in a document published on the Co-op website.
[iv] Morrisons: routine use banned in chicken, egg & milk production, but not beef, pork and lamb. By 2020 all Morrisons branded fresh pork will be from pigs where routine use has been eliminated.
[v] Morrisons: Restricting the use of CIAs applies to milk, chicken and egg production, and from 2018 will include pork. Beef and lamb not covered.


The Results

Waitrose has taken action on nearly all of the areas outlined in our questions. They have banned routine preventative use, restricted the use of the critically important antibiotics, and have publicly stated that they’ve banned the use of the last-resort antibiotic colistin. They are the only supermarket that has committed to publishing antibiotic-use data for its suppliers, although it is not yet clear whether this will be by farming system. Publishing use data by farming system (including conventional, free-range and organic) would be an important step to take as it would provide key information enabling different farming systems to learn from the lowest users.

M&S have similarly published a very detailed policy which addresses all of the parameters set out in our questions, bar the publication of data gathered on antibiotic use in their supply chains. M&S joins Waitrose in being the only two supermarkets to publicly state that they have banned the use of colistin.

Tesco and Sainsbury’s have also implemented a good range of policies, including banning routine preventative use and restricting the critically important antibiotics, but unlike Waitrose and M&S, they have not yet banned colistin. They also do not publish antibiotic-use data, although they do collect some data.

The Co-op has banned the routine preventative use of antibiotics, though it isn’t explicit in their policy whether CIAs are restricted. Aldi has a public positon on antibiotics published on its website, rather than a full policy. Within this it mentions measures to limit routine preventative use of antibiotics, but it is not explicitly banned. It is monitoring use, and has restricted the use of CIAs.

Morrisons has banned routine preventative use in chicken, dairy and egg production, but has yet to ban such use in other species. They have also only partly restricted the use of critically important antibiotics, and do not appear to collect antibiotic-use data. Their policy mentions a “proactive approach” to monitoring and reducing use. Asda has a publicly available policy, but it only includes restrictions on the critically important antibiotics, and has no ban on routine preventative use.

Lidl is the only supermarket that has no publicly available policy and has made no public commitment to reducing antibiotic use.

Monitoring of antibiotic use varies across the supermarket policies with an almost equal split between those that do and those that don’t. For supermarkets that are trying to monitor use, this is likely to be focused at first on the pig and poultry industries, as the UK pig and poultry sectors have already put in place systems for monitoring use. Antibiotic-use monitoring, however, is still being set up by the cattle and sheep sectors. Supermarkets that monitor antibiotic use are also much more likely to have an antibiotic-reduction strategy in place. This is probably because they feel that in order to reduce use you must first know where you are starting from.


What next

All supermarkets must commit to ending all routine preventative use of antibiotics in their supply chains. There is already significant political and farming-industry support for such a move, and there is plenty of practical farmer and vet-focused best practice guidance which can help to make this a reality.

While many supermarkets have programmes to reduce and/or phase out the use of critically important antibiotics, their next step should be to publish information about how much of these types of medicines are still being used, and in which species.

Monitoring usage must be high on the agenda for supermarkets so that reduction strategies can be devised. Publishing antibiotic-use data by farming system is also essential. Some supermarkets already have such data for some species, and publishing it is essential. We will recreate this assessment in 2018 to monitor progress and will again publicly release the findings.

  The questions we asked: 

  • Do you have a publicly available policy on farm antibiotic use? In particular, does your policy ban suppliers from using purely preventative antibiotic treatment as group
    treatments when no disease has been diagnosed in any of the animals in the group?
  • Does the policy ban suppliers from using antibiotics for routine prevention?
  • Does the policy restrict the use of the “critically important antibiotics” (modern cephalosporins and fluoroquinolones) so that these antibiotics can only be used where sensitivity shows that other treatments would not be effective, and so that they are never used for prevention or for group treatments?
  • Does the policy ban the use of the last-resort antibiotic colistin?
  • Do you gather data on antibiotic use by your suppliers? Is this data collected by farming system ie, conventional/intensive, free-range, organic?
  • Is this data publicly available or are there plans to make it publicly available?
  • Do you have an antibiotic reduction strategy?




What you can do

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