Farms could significantly lower antibiotic use by adopting organic standards for animal welfare, new research has found.
A survey, commissioned by the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics (ASOS), found that overall antibiotic use per livestock unit by farmers certified by the Soil Association was four times lower than the national average. For dairy farms it was less than half the national average and for beef farms it was less than a third. For sheep farms it was less than a fifth of the level found in the most recent large survey of sheep farms.
Campaigners obtained veterinary data for over 200 Soil Association certified farms and compared it with government and industry data on veterinary antibiotic sales and use.
The survey included a smaller number of pig and poultry farms than for other species. It found that antibiotic use per livestock unit by Soil Association pig farmers was 75 times lower than the national average and for chicken farms it was five times lower than the national average.
Researchers identified a link between low antibiotic use and high standards of animal husbandry, including good hygiene, keeping animals outdoors as much as possible, and providing a low-stress environment.
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in humans, which has been linked to high levels of antibiotic use in livestock, has been identified as one of the greatest global threats to human health. The 2016 O’Neill review on antibiotic resistance, commissioned by the UK government, concluded that the burden of deaths from AMR could total 10 million lives each year by 2050, at a cumulative cost to global economic output of $100 trillion.
Organic farming has stricter rules on antibiotics which do not permit routine use or preventative mass medication. Cóilín Nunan of ASOS said: “If the government is serious about tackling the antibiotic-resistance crisis, it should immediately move to end these practices on all British livestock farms.”
Voluntary industry initiatives, such as the Food Industry Initiative on Antimicrobials (FIIA), have been established to promote and support responsible antimicrobial use and action on antimicrobial resistance. FIAA members including Greencore, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, have pledged to stop routine prophylactic use of antibiotics and to ensure that highest priority critically important antibiotics, as defined by the European Medicines Agency, are only used as a last resort when needed to safeguard animal welfare and no alternative treatment option is available.
Foodservice businesses are also working to address the use of antibiotics in their supply chains. McDonald’s has previously stated its intention to phase out all use of antibiotics considered critically important to human health, while Subway is committed to serving only antibiotic-free meat by 2025.
“British farmers have voluntarily cut their antibiotic use by nearly 50% in the last five years, which is very welcome, but these findings show that much lower use could still be achieved,” said Nunan.