The sale of antibiotics for use in animals in the UK has decreased by 1% since 2019, according to a report released by the government’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate on Tuesday 9 November.
However, after falling by 50% between 2014 and 2018, overall sales have remained relatively flat between 2018 and 2020. Sales in 2020 were 1% higher than in 2018.
The UK now has one of the lowest levels of antibiotic use in Europe, but use per livestock unit remains far higher than in some of the lowest-using countries, like Sweden, Norway or Iceland.
Antibiotic use in pigs, in particular, remains far too high, despite a 5% reduction in 2020. Use per pig remains over 2.5 times higher than in Denmark and the Netherlands and over 6.5 times higher than in Sweden.
According to the industry group RUMA (responsible use of medicines in agriculture alliance), supply-chain resource and infrastructure issues, and labour difficulties may have impeded efforts to make larger cuts in antibiotic use. However, RUMA also suggests that some sectors may no longer be able to significantly cut their antibiotic use without compromising animal welfare.
However, it is clear that if significant improvements were made to husbandry and farming systems, much higher levels of animal health and welfare could be achieved, which would severely reduce the need for antibiotics.
Cóilín Nunan of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics said: "The much lower use of antibiotics in Swedish pigs and in organic pigs is due to less intensive production practices focused on achieving better animal health. Genuinely low levels of antibiotic use in UK pigs will only be achieved if husbandry is improved, and practices like the early weaning of piglets are ended."
More positively, the overall animal use of the highest-priority critically important antibiotics was reduced by 15% in 2020 compared with 2019, resulting in a 73% reduction since 2014.