Increasing use of aminoglycoside antibiotics in pig industry

An article published today in the Guardian newspaper, UK pig farms doubled their use of class of antibiotics vital for humans, reports on increasing use of aminoglycoside antibiotics in the UK pig industry. Industry data shows that use of aminoglycosides, which are classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as critically important in human medicine, has more than doubled since 2015.

The Alliance is concerned about the increasing use of aminoglycosides in pig farming since we know that some aminoglycoside resistance is likely to transfer from farm animals to humans and this could have consequences for certain medical treatments.

However, we also note and welcome the fact that the overall use of all critically important antibiotics in pig farming has fallen by 49% since 2015 and that the use of the highest-priority critically important antibiotics has fallen by 69% during the same period.

Aminoglycosides are not classified by the WHO as highest-priority critically important antibiotics and similarly the European Medicine Agency classifies these antibiotics as being in the second-highest importance category of antibiotics used in farming.

The pig industry has reduced its total of antibiotics by 62% between 2015 and 2020 and this action is helping to reduce antibiotic resistance in some bacteria from pigs. However, between 2018 and 2020 use has only fallen by 5% and the average use level remains far higher than in other sectors.

Further major cuts in antibiotic use are needed in British pigs. Achieving the necessary reductions will require significant improvements to animal health and welfare. In particular, the stressful early weaning of piglets should no longer be permitted as this practice is associated with large increases in antibiotic use. Current pig-welfare standards permit pigs to be weaned from just 21 days old, under certain circumstances. In contrast, organic standards require piglets to be at least 40 days old before weaning.

Antibiotic use in British pigs is now likely to be at a much lower level than in many countries, but it remains about seven times higher than in Sweden where pigs are kept less intensively and piglets are not weaned as early as they are in the UK.