Foodservice Footprint pig2 Caterers must step up to the plate on antibiotic overuse Out of Home News Analysis  news-email most-read email-news

Caterers must step up to the plate on antibiotic overuse

Foodservice operators have found themselves in the line of fire for a lack of engagement with the issue of antibiotic resistance linked to meat supply chains. Nick Hughes reports. 

Weak or non-existent antibiotic policies from the UK’s ten leading catering companies are failing to control antibiotic use in the production of meat, dairy and eggs, creating risks for human health from antibiotic resistance.

That was the serious charge levelled at the foodservice sector by the campaign group the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics (Asoa) in a report published in October last year. Asoa assessed the antibiotic policies of 10 leading UK catering companies which between them provide meals to thousands of schools, universities, colleges and healthcare establishments. It found that five companies – Apetito, ISS, Newrest, OCS, and WSH – had no publicly available antibiotic policy, while the remaining five – Aramark, CH&CO, Compass Group, Elior and Sodexo – did have antibiotic policies but none of them prohibited the routine use of antibiotics or collected any data on antibiotic use in their supply chains.

“We know that resistant bacteria can be transmitted to people on food, so there is really no excuse for catering companies having such poor policies,” said Cóilín Nunan from Asoa at the time of the report’s launch.

Antibiotic resistance is a growing global problem caused by the overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals – in the latter case both to treat and prevent illness. In a seminal 2016 government-commissioned report, leading economist Jim O’Neill warned that without policies to stop its spread, the 700,000 annual deaths attributable to antimicrobial resistance globally would increase to 10 million a year by 2050.

Given the severity of the risks from antibiotic overuse to human health, and Asoa’s negative assessment of sector progress, should caterers be doing more to tackle the problem in animal protein supply chains and are there mitigating factors behind the lack of engagement to-date by businesses?

Apathy reigns

In the UK, around 30% of all antibiotics are used on farmed animals, according to Asoa. Although this is better than the global average of approximately 66% it still equated to 212 tonnes of antibiotic active ingredient sold in the UK for use on farmed animals in 2021, down from 447 tonnes in 2014.

Asoa says there is no place for apathy or complacency in addressing the issue, yet it claims the findings of its latest report show that most catering companies are not taking the risk of antibiotic resistance seriously enough.

The campaign group has previously reported on the antibiotic policies of the UK’s leading supermarkets. It found significant differences between the policies of different retailers, but by 2021 all supermarkets had a ban on most or all of their UK own-brand suppliers from using antibiotics for routine disease prevention.

Nunan tells Footprint that Asoa didn’t expect caterers to be as far advanced in their work on antibiotic use, citing their lack of direct links both with the end consumer and with farmers, relative to the close relationships held by the big supermarket chains. Still, he describes the overall level of engagement from the 10 businesses surveyed as “disappointing” given Asoa had provided 18 months warning that it planned to carry out the study.

Asoa says only two companies – CH&CO and Compass Group – actively engaged with it during the process, which included an offer of support on how to develop an antibiotic policy.

Company commitments

Caterers for their part insist the issue is one they are taking seriously. CH&CO was one of the highest scoring caterers assessed by Asoa. By 2024 it has committed to ensure that there is no routine preventative use of antibiotics permitted in all meat, fish, dairy, and eggs served in cafés and restaurants, and the use of colistin – a critical human medicine for treating life threatening infections – will be banned. The business has also pledged to record and monitor antibiotic usage within the supply chain on an annual basis.

“We recognise that we still have work to do on our data gathering but we are pleased to see from the report that we are making good progress. We stand by our publicly available commitments on proactively removing the use of antibiotics within the supply chain,” says Samantha Davis, group procurement and supply chain director at CH&CO.

Sodexo’s animal product suppliers are required to adhere to its animal welfare supplier charter, which obliges them to implement the highest practical standards of farm animal welfare, according to Aoife Wycherley, head of supply chain for Sodexo UK & Ireland. The charter states the use of antibiotics should not be routine and where they are used each usage should be recorded; it also states an antibiotic reduction plan should be implemented. “This is an issue we take seriously and will continue to review steps we can take to support our supply partners in addressing this,” Wycherley adds.

Compass Group UK & Ireland says its current standards around the use of antibiotics in the supply chain exceed UK legislation and guidance. “Our animal welfare policy requires that the routine prophylactic use of antibiotics must be avoided. Our ambition is to ban the routine use of antibiotics and we will work with our suppliers of fresh meat, dairy, fish and eggs to achieve this,” says a company spokesperson.

Since publication of Asoa’s report, Compass has updated its policy to include a requirement for all suppliers to have a roadmap in place by 2024 to ban prophylactic use. It adds that all suppliers will undergo enhanced checks and Compass will continue engaging with suppliers on the issue via dedicated workshops.

Data issues

One of the key challenges catering businesses face is capturing accurate data on antibiotic use within their upstream supply chains. CH&CO is putting a strong emphasis on gaining greater visibility over its supply chain data as part of a holistic plan to tackle the antibiotic issue. The business on-boarded the Authenticate supply chain tool over two years ago which allows it to map products down to a farm level. “In our tendering of meat we stipulate our antibiotic policy stance, and we will move away from suppliers who cannot meet this objective,” says Davis.

Yet businesses who operate towards the consumer end of the supply chain face challenges in ensuring antibiotic policies are adhered to. The EU banned the routine use of antibiotics for livestock in 2022 meaning that farmers are no longer able to give antibiotic treatments to prevent, rather than treat, illness or infection in animals. The UK government is also proposing to introduce new rules which would ban all forms of routine antibiotic use and limit preventative use to exceptional circumstances where there is a high risk of infection, however it is unclear when or if these new rules will come into force. “Until this becomes legislation it is hard to hold the supply chain to account as not all suppliers record the data,” explains Davis.

Elior – another of the better performing caterers according to Asoa’s assessment – also highlights challenges relating to data availability and having effective systems and processes to collect data that often sits at farm level rather than with direct suppliers.

Elior is currently agreeing a coordinated approach for a revised animal welfare policy due to be published in early 2024 and within which antibiotic use sits. “We are working with our suppliers to understand what data we can measure for this subject; this is often held at farm level and our suppliers need to develop systems to collate the information and set realistic targets,” says Charlotte Wright, director of CSR and wellness for Elior UK.

Higher standards

Setting a supplier policy for reducing the use of antibiotics is just one tool in the box for tackling the issue of overuse, according to Asoa. It says companies should also try to obtain their meat, dairy and eggs from farming systems which have higher minimum animal welfare standards, and which have restrictions on routine antibiotic use. Such systems could include organic, free-range, pasture-fed or higher-welfare indoor production, such as RSPCA Assured, while species-specific standards like the Better Chicken Commitment also have requirements on antibiotic use.

More extensive farming systems tend to have much lower levels of antibiotic use, as do those systems with higher animal husbandry standards, says Nunan. 

Caterers should also work on reducing their reliance on animal protein altogether. Wright notes that Elior UK has been working to reduce meat consumption and increase plant-based ingredients, such as beans and pulses, across its business. “The benefits of this are vast and support our carbon reduction journey,” she says. “For example, we set a goal in 2021 to reduce beef consumption by 40% before 2025, and one of the most successful actions to implement this has been to take a traditional beef dish and replace 50% of the beef volume with beans or lentils.”

Elsewhere, Compass has set a target for a 25% reduction of animal protein by 2025 and 40% by 2030, while Sodexo’s goal is for 33% of menus to be plant-based worldwide by 2025.

Nunan would also welcome caterers collaborating to drive positive change on antibiotic use throughout the foodservice supply chain. He notes how supermarkets view antibiotic use as a pre-competitive issue and have helped set up the ‘Food industry initiative on antimicrobials’, with the aim of developing common antibiotic policies for the food industry. “That is definitely something catering companies could work together on,” he suggests.

Since the report was published in the autumn, Nunan says more catering companies have started engaging with Asoa. “There does seem to be a greater urgency around this issue so we hope businesses will be acting on this over the next year or two,” he says.