Strong EU and international action needed to prevent animal antibiotic overuse

Written by Kerry McCarthy on 17 February 2016 in Opinion

As in humans, antibiotics are essential for treating animal infections. But far too much of their use is preventative, says British MP Kerry McCarthy.

Last summer in the UK, we were all shocked by revelations from Britain's Food Standards Agency that nearly three-quarters of fresh chickens in supermarkets and butchers were contaminated with the potentially lethal food-poisoning bug campylobacter.

And last week scientists warned that a class of antibiotics used to treat campylobacter infections is under threat due to its overuse in farming.

New data obtained by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that the UK poultry industry’s use of fluoroquinolone antibiotics, classified by experts as ‘critically important’ for humans, increased by a staggering 59 per cent between 2013 and 2014.


This increase has been mirrored by rising resistance to these drugs in human campylobacter infections, which is now at record levels. Experts have long been warning that just as there is a clear correlation between rising levels of human use of antibiotics and growing resistance, the same is true in agriculture.

Just before Christmas, we learned that resistance to Colistin – a last-resort antibiotic for humans – had transferred from farm animals to humans. A gene which makes bacteria resistant to this antibiotic was first found in Chinese pigs, meat and human infections in November.

The same gene was soon discovered in stored bacterial samples in countries across the world, and was found in the UK in late December.

In 2014, sales of antibiotics classified as critically important in human medicine hit a record high. In contrast, there has been a reduction of their use in human medicine in recent years. In fact, targets have been set for the reduction of antibiotic use by health professionals.

UK regulator, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, has even suggested “soft-touch” doctors should be sanctioned for over-prescribing.

As in humans, antibiotics are essential for treating infection in animals. But far too much of this use is preventative, with groups of animals regularly dosed even when no disease has been diagnosed in any animal.

We need strong international action to prevent antibiotics from being given to animals that do not need them, alongside efforts to reduce their use in human medicine.

We cannot risk a post-antibiotic future where, in the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron, we are “cast back into the dark ages of medicine where treatable infections and injuries will kill once again."

Without concerted action we could also lose effective agents for use in farming, which could severely affect the agricultural industry and our food security.

A number of other European countries have set ambitious targets, bans, and strategies to ensure responsible antibiotic use in farming.

And today, MEPs in the European Parliament's environment, public health and food safety committee will vote on French deputy Françoise Grossetête's report on Veterinary medicinal products which proposes an EU-wide ban on the routine, preventative use of antibiotics on groups of healthy animals via their feed or water.

Scientists and medical professionals from across the EU have called on MEPs to make this a reality.

The British government says it condemns routine preventative antibiotic use in groups of healthy animals, with UK farming minister, George Eustice, arguing that “the administration of antibiotics in the absence of disease is not a responsible way to use antibiotics”.

But we must do more to make sure this is happening in practice. Given the importance of antibiotics in protecting human health, I urge the British government to support and implement such a ban.

About the author

Kerry McCarthy is a British Labour MP and shadow Secretary of State for the environment, food and rural affairs

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