New government data shows that in 2019 the sales of antibiotics for food-producing animals, adjusted for animal population, increased by 5% compared with a year earlier, while sales of the most critically important antibiotics fell by 20%.
Cóilín Nunan of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics said : “This is a disappointing increase in overall antibiotic use, which remains far too high, particularly in the pig sector. Unfortunately the government isn’t regulating farm antibiotic use sufficiently to protect human and animal health. In January 2022, new legislation will finally end all routine farm antibiotic use including all preventative mass medication in the EU, but the government hasn’t committed to implementing these bans fully in the UK.”
Instead of regulating, a key part of the government’s strategy remains to rely on farmers to voluntarily do the right thing. Total farm antibiotic sales had previously fallen by about 50% between 2014 and 2018, partly through voluntary initiatives in the pig and poultry industries, making the UK a below-average user in the EU.
However, increased imports in years to come of cheaper, non-EU, meat and dairy produced with routine antibiotic use could lead to British farmers being outcompeted unless they lower their own standards and return to higher antibiotic use.
Antibiotic use remains highest in pigs, over 2.5 times higher per animal than in Denmark and the Netherlands. According to the pig industry, the failure to reduce antibiotic use in pigs in 2019 was due to an increase in swine dysentery, a severe bacterial infection which spreads when pigs ingest infected faecal matter.
In 2019, there were some large increases in antibiotic use in poultry. Antibiotic use increased by 40% in chickens raised for meat and by 50% in the egg industry, although use in both cases use remains far lower than in pigs.
Cóilín Nunan said : “Antibiotics continue to be overused to control diseases caused by the stress and poor hygiene of intensive farming. Major improvements to husbandry are needed to protect animal health and welfare. The government must also commit to banning all preventative mass medication.”
New targets for reducing antibiotic usage on farms have also been announced for 2021-2024.