Health experts call for antibiotic use ban on farms

Ten of the UK’s most senior medics have called on the government to ban preventative antibiotic group treatments in livestock.

In a short letter, the experts warned that failure to enforce a ban “will result in the UK having some of the weakest regulatory standards for farm antibiotic use in Europe”. This could “seriously undermine the very welcome progress currently being made in reducing UK farm antibiotic use and negatively impact human health”, they added.

Coordinated by the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, the letter comes just weeks after the European Parliament voted in favour of new legislation to ban preventative antibiotic treatments of groups of farm animals in the EU in three years’ time.

The government supports the legislation. However, when questioned in Parliament, food and farming minister George Eustice failed to endorse a ban on preventative group treatments, only acknowledging that the legislation would “restrict” such treatments. Eustice said Defra would continue to work with stakeholders on interpreting the legislation.

Signatories to the letter include the presidents or leading spokespeople of the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Surgeons and Royal College of Physicians. Also included among the signatories are the editors-in-chief of leading medical scientific journals, the British Medical Journal and the Lancet.

Professor John Middleton, president of the Faculty of Public Health, said: “A future world where bugs are all resistant to antibiotics will return us to the dark days of ineffective healthcare and condemn many to early deaths. Animal health and human health must be equally protected to save our antibiotics – that is why we are making this call on government.”

Campaigners are concerned the UK is seeking to align its policy with that of the US. “This should raise alarm bells about the kind of post-Brexit trade deal the UK may agree with the US, where antibiotics are used in enormous quantities in livestock,” said Cóilín Nunan, scientific advisor to the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics.

According to the campaign group’s calculations, the use of antibiotics in US farming is six times higher per livestock unit than in the UK. Antibiotic use in US cattle is 13 times higher, six times higher for chickens and 2.5 times higher for pigs than in the UK.

Farm antibiotic use has been cut significantly in the UK in recent years, but worldwide it is estimated that 73% of all antibiotics are used in livestock rather than in medicine.

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