EU must urgently rethink its farm animal health practices

To better combat antimicrobial resistance, we must change how we medicate animals, writes Martin Häusling.

By Martin Häusling

18 Sep 2015

Far too many antimicrobials are being used in animal farming. In Germany, for example, the number of antimicrobials used in industrial livestock production is twice as high as that used in human medicine.

Especially problematic in this respect is the systematic use of both prophylactic treatment - the treating of all animals to avoid infections due to poor hygiene standards and high densities even before any of them is sick - and the so-called herd-treatment, or metaphylaxis. Metaphylaxis is the mass medication of a group of animals to eliminate or minimise an expected outbreak of disease.

The use of antimicrobials causes antimicrobial resistance - with increasingly deadly consequences. In April this year, a group of leading scientists came forward with a forecast that warns Europe may surpass one million deaths due to ineffective antibiotics by 2025. The review of legislation on veterinary medicinal products provides a good opportunity to change the situation. 


However, the legislative proposal is too weak to end the reliance of intensive farming on the use of prophylactic and metaphylactic antimicrobials. The Greens not only call for an end to prophylactic use, but also propose limiting metaphylactic use of antimicrobials, by setting up clear conditions for their use.

The primary focus needs to be on preventative measures. Good, healthy breeding stocks that are allowed to develop naturally, with suitable genetic diversity, are essential in maintaining animal health. 

We also need to ensure animals are kept in conditions that respect the behavioural needs of their species as well as keeping stocking densities at such a level that they do not increase the risk of disease transmission. 

Sick animals need to be isolated from the rest of the group. For chickens and smaller animals, a subdivision of flocks into smaller, physically separated groups needs to occur when they are threatened with disease. 

Only if these measures are adopted, will we see an improvement in the health of our farmed animals. 

As for antimicrobials that are critically important to humans, they should not be used on animals under any circumstance, but reserved for human medicine alone.

I also believe that vets should not gain financial advantage from prescribing or selling antimicrobials. Likewise, any conflict of interest needs to be avoided when authorising veterinary medicinal products. This especially concerns members of the Committee for Medicinal Products for Veterinary Use.

The production and use of drugs has a significant impact on the environment as well. Yet, current legislation more or less casts a blind eye on their environmental impact. 

Moreover, most of the veterinary drugs have never been assessed for their environmental properties. 

To limit the negative environmental effects of veterinary medicinal products it is necessary to reduce environmental pollution at production and to ensure that an environmental risk assessment is made of all of them, preferably via a substance-based review system.

The Greens have succeeded in achieving in bringing many of these issues to the attention of Parliament's agriculture committee. 

We will now have to make sure that we also get a majority for these issues in the environment committee, the leading committee for veterinary medicinal products.


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