Until fairly recently, efforts to tackle the global antibiotic resistance crisis have focused on improving prescribing practices in human medicine. Pushy patients demanding drugs to treat colds and other ailments on which antibiotics have no effect, remiss GPs handing out antibiotics like sweets: these practices have been held responsible for fuelling antibiotic resistance – and sometimes justifiably. But lately, it’s the use of antibiotics in farming which has been making the headlines.
A number of factors lie behind the growing scrutiny of veterinary prescribing. Crucially, the scientific evidence linking farm antibiotic use with resistance in human infections is becoming indisputable. The recent UK Review on Antimicrobial Resistance stated that the evidence is compelling enough to warrant “significant reductions” to farm antibiotic use – a view shared by organisations such as the European Medicines Agency and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.
With GPs, doctors, dentists, and livestock farmers now taking steps to curb antibiotic prescribing, the paucity of publicly available policies on antibiotic use from food businesses is coming under fire. In October, 58 MPs called on UK supermarkets to ban the routine mass medication of livestock in their supply chains. This practice – common in pig and poultry farming and permitted by most UK supermarkets, restaurants and food businesses – is increasingly seen as incompatible with efforts to preserve our dwindling antibiotic supplies.
The key request of the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, which represents 63 EU-wide organisations spanning medical, health, animal welfare and civil society sectors, is for an end to the routine preventative mass medication of groups of livestock, before any disease has been diagnosed within the group.
Recent reports suggested that Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) and others had dismissed our efforts to prohibit the routine mass medication of animals as an attempt to “push the organic agenda”. They would do well to realise that popular, scientific and official policy opinion is increasingly aligned on this issue.
While the call for a ban to such practices has drawn criticism from industry bodies such as RUMA, these demands are fully in line with the UK government’s official position. Even RUMA’s European parent, EPRUMA, has publicly announced its support for an EU-wide ban on these practices. Recently 16 of the UK’s leading medical figures added their voices to the call for such a ban.
Rising consumer concern is also increasing the pressure on food businesses to act. Public expectation is rapidly shifting, and purchasing habits threaten to follow suit. And with veterinary prescribing policy across Europe set to tighten substantially in the next few years, foodservice businesses must get ahead of the curve.
Some businesses are taking action. Waitrose recently clarified that it will ban the routine preventative mass medication of livestock in its supply chain, and limit use of “critically important” drugs. The Restaurant Group has announced similar goals. This issue is edging its way into the sustainable procurement narrative, with award bodies like the Sustainable Restaurant Association now asking applicants about supply-chain antibiotic use.
The case for action is strong. Companies that invest in antibiotic-reduction strategies could see significant return on investment in the form of increased operational resilience. By supporting farmers to reduce antibiotics, businesses can help to insulate themselves from the effects of forthcoming regulatory restrictions, and from inevitable contractions in the availability of veterinary medicines. Importantly, those seen to be taking action could benefit from greatly improved public perception.
So what can foodservice companies do? First, engage supply chains on this issue. Find out whether suppliers have policies in place or are already taking steps to reduce antibiotic use. Work together to adopt a policy and timeframe for phasing out the routine mass medication of livestock. Set goals on restricting use of critically important drugs to instances where they are a genuine last resort to treat individual animals. Prioritise a shift towards higher welfare systems where the need for antibiotics is greatly reduced.
Also, and critically, talk about these improvements, make policies publicly available, encourage questions and open dialogue. Food businesses have remained too silent on this issue and this doesn’t build consumer trust.
Veterinary antibiotic use is on the threshold of huge change. This provides real business opportunities for those who are prepared to prioritise good welfare and responsible farm antibiotic use. Most importantly, by using its purchasing power for the public good, the foodservice sector can do its bit to safeguard antibiotics for future generations. ”
Emma Rose is campaigns, lobbying and communications specialist at the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics.