EU report shows high levels of antibiotic resistance in British pigs including resistance to last-resort human antibiotic

A new EU report published on Wednesday by the European Food Safety Authority and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says that antibiotic resistance in humans, farm animals and food in many European countries “remains high” and poses a serious threat to public and animal health [1].

The report has the results of the first-ever harmonised testing of antibiotic resistance in E. coli bacteria from fattening pigs. It shows that resistance in British pigs was the 9th highest of the 29 countries where testing was carried out. Some resistance to colistin, the last-resort human antibiotic, was found in nine countries, including in one sample out of 170 from the UK.

In contrast, resistance in pig E. coli samples was lowest in Norway, Finland and Sweden, where pig farming is less intensive and farm antibiotic use is exceptionally low by European standards.

Cóilín Nunan, Scientific Adviser to the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics said: “It’s not surprising that antibiotic resistance in British pigs is so high since we know that over half of all farm antibiotic use in the UK is in pigs [2]. A lot of routine use occurs at weaning time, when piglets are very prone to developing E. coli infections as they are weaned far too early. Piglets can be weaned as early as 21 days, which enables the farmer to produce more pigs per sow per year.  In Sweden, piglets are usually weaned around 35 days and this means there is no need for routine antibiotic use [3].”

  1. coli is by far the most common cause of blood-poisoning infections in humans, causing over 45,000 of these infections a year in the UK [4]. Public Health England figures show this results in over 5,800 deaths per year in England alone [5], and extrapolating to the whole of the UK, the annual number of deaths is about 7,000.

No new antibiotics for treating E. coli infections have been found for over 35 years, so rising levels of resistance are a major threat to both human and animal health. Many scientists believe that a significant amount of resistance in human E. coli infections is of farm-animal origin [6].

The EU data shows huge differences in the levels of resistance in different countries. In Norway 80% of pig E. coli were sensitive to all antibiotics, but in the UK only 23% were antibiotic sensitive and in Cyprus none were antibiotic sensitive. In Cyprus 98% of pig E. coli were resistant to at least three different antibiotics, in the UK it was over 50% whereas in Norway it was just 10%.

Cóilín Nunan said: “The British pig industry finally started to reduce its antibiotic use in 2015 but use remains exceptionally high and the latest Red Tractor standards still permit groups of pigs to be mass medicated even when there is no diagnosis of disease in any of the pigs, whereas the British poultry industry announced it had ended preventative group treatments late last year.

The European Parliament voted last March to ban preventative group treatments in all species but the proposal is being held up by the Council of Ministers and may not become law for many years [7]. So the government urgently needs to follow the Nordic countries and ban all routine preventative group treatments in all species. It should also ban all farm use of the last-resort human antibiotic colistin, as the British Poultry Council has already done for poultry.”

The EU report also shows that resistance to the critically important fluoroquinolone antibiotics in the most common type of human Campylobacter infections has reached a record 61% throughout Europe. Most fluoroquinolone resistance in human Campylobacter infections is strongly believed to be due to the use of fluoroquinolones in poultry. EFSA and the ECDC said that resistance in some countries like Spain or Portugal was now so high that fluoroquinolones were no longer appropriate treatments for most human Campylobacter infections [8].

Late last year, the British Poultry Council announced that it had ceased using fluoroquinolones in chickens, but use in turkeys is ongoing. The BPC’s move came after a 20-year campaign to end fluoroquinolone use in poultry. The EU, however, is still permitting fluoroquinolone use in poultry, despite all use in poultry being banned in the US since 2005.

Notes to Editors

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 Compassion in World Farming, the Soil Association and Sustain in 2009. Its vision is a world in which human and animal health and wellbeing are protected by food and farming systems that do not rely routinely on antibiotics and related drugs.