Simply banning hormone-treated beef and chlorine-washed chicken will not be enough to protect UK consumers in the event of a trade deal between the UK and the US. This is the key conclusion of a new report, Maximum Growth: Whatever the Cost, published by the Sustainable Food Trust.

This finds that US cattle, pig, chicken and turkey farms are routinely using four antibiotics that have been banned in the UK for all purposes and two others that have never been permitted here for growth promotion. They also use four other antibiotics, in ways that would be illegal in the UK, as well as the beta-agonist, ractopamine, not permitted here on food safety grounds. The drugs are used at low levels in feed for prolonged periods to make animals grow faster and/or suppress diseases of intensification in beef feedlots and other factory farms. This creates the ideal conditions for the development of antibiotic resistance.

Eight of the antibiotics were once permitted in the UK to make animals grow faster but this practice was completely ended by 2006. Of the other two, one has never been permitted in the UK for any purpose.

In the US, five of the antibiotics are openly on sale over the counter just to make animals grow faster. There are urgent antibiotic resistance reasons why the farm use of bacitracin, one of these antibiotics, should be ended as soon as possible and longer-term reasons why the routine farm use of the other five antibiotics should not be permitted, as in the UK.

Of the remaining former growth-promoting antibiotics no longer licensed in the US specifically for growth promotion, carbadox should be banned immediately due to the potential for carcinogenic residues to be left in pork. There are also long-term antibiotic resistance concerns about the others.

The continuing use of these antibiotics in the US is a surprise because the US Food and Drug Administration agreed a ban on growth promotion with representatives of US intensive livestock farmers in 2017. This regulatory failure could have implications in the UK if there is a no-deal Brexit. Under WTO rules it would not be possible to restrict meat imports based on the use of antibiotics.

The issue could then impact UK consumers and livestock farmers if a free-trade deal is negotiated with the incoming US administration and the UK Government fails to insist that only meat produced to all the higher welfare, hygiene and drug-use standards that exist in the UK can be imported.

The EU is proposing to go further and ban all preventative use of antibiotics in groups of animals from 2022 and to require producers exporting chicken to the EU to do the same. The UK Government accepts that preventative use needs to be reduced, but appears reluctant to go along with this latest, precautionary, move by the EU.

US beef cattle, pigs and turkeys are also fed the beta-agonist ractopamine as they approach slaughter weights, to increase growth still further and make the animals extra-lean. This drug is banned in the UK, EU, Russia and China on food safety grounds and there are also significant concerns about its welfare effects on the animals.

In a letter to Secretary of State for the Environment, George Eustice, SFT policy director and author of the report, Richard Young said, “Given the growing worldwide problem of antimicrobial resistance, it would be completely irresponsible if the Government were to allow the importation of beef, pork or poultry meat produced with the use of antibiotics for growth promotion which have been banned here, or the use of antibiotics that are licensed in the UK but used in the US for disease suppression in ways that would be illegal here. As you and your advisors will know, the continuous daily use of antibiotics at growth-promoting or sub-therapeutic doses, is far more likely to result in the development of antibiotic resistance than a short treatment with an antibiotic at full therapeutic levels, if and when disease occurs.”

As you will also know, UK farmers have made major strides in recent years to reduce their use of antibiotics and play their part in helping to hold back the rise of untreatable infections due to antibiotic resistance. Allowing the importation of meat produced in ways not allowed here would be a major slap in the face for British farmers and a seriously backward step in the fight against antimicrobial resistance.”

Since 2015 UK farmers have reduced their use of antibiotics overall by 43% and ambitious targets for further reductions have been set in pork and dairy production. In contrast, the overall use of antibiotics in the US is more than 5 times higher per kilo of meat produced than in the UK, and 8 times more for beef and turkey meat.

In the US 2.8 million people develop an antibiotic-resistant infection every year. Most of those are still successfully treated with a second or third course of antibiotics, but 35,000 of them died in the last year for which figures are available, up by about 10,000 a year on a decade ago.

To read the full report, click here.

For the full press release with notes, click here.

For the letter sent to Secretary of State, George Eustice, click here.

For more about antibiotics, click here.

For more information, contact:

Megan Perry, Head of Communications, Sustainable Food Trust


Richard Young, Policy Director, Sustainable Food Trust


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