The Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics is an alliance of health, medical, civil society and animal welfare groups campaigning to stop the overuse of antibiotics in animal farming. It was founded by Compassion in World Farmingthe Soil Association and Sustain in 2009. Its vision is a world in which human and animal health and well-being are protected by food and farming systems that do not rely on routine antibiotic use.

The 2019 World Antibiotics Awareness week (18-22 November) falls on the 50 year anniversary of the Swann report, a seminal government report that concluded that the overuse of antibiotics in farming was a threat to human health which had already caused human deaths. The Swann report said the intensification of livestock farming had led to more disease problems and that it could not find “any excuse in logic or theory” for the practice of feeding antibiotics preventatively to groups of animals.

Fifty years later, intensive farming is still associated with major disease problems, and mass medication with antibiotics, or other forms of medication, remains common.

The issue

The overuse of antibiotics in human and animal medicine is undermining their ability to cure life-threatening infections in people, by creating an army of dangerous bacteria (sometimes called ‘superbugs’) that are resistant to effective treatment with antibiotics.

Huge amounts of antibiotics continue to be used in farming and fishing; farm animals account for almost two thirds of all antibiotics used in 26 European countries, and around 30% of all antibiotics used in the UK.

The UK pig and poultry industries have made major reductions in their antibiotic use in recent years, contributing to a 50% reduction in total farm use since 2014. But the use of alternative forms of routine mass medication is now at record levels in intensive pig and poultry farming. Some of these alternative forms of mass medication can also increase levels of resistance to medically important antibiotics. Intensively farmed animals are still receiving routine medication because they are kept in poor conditions, so they are generally less naturally resistant to disease, and get sick and pass infections easily to each other. Good antibiotics stewardship should go hand in hand with better living conditions for animals, higher animal welfare and the use of hardier breeds.

Where next for UK antibiotic use?

In 2018, the EU made a landmark ruling to end the overuse of antibiotics in farming. The new legislation was approved by over 97% of the European Parliament. This legislation will ban the preventative mass medication of groups of healthy animals, which has been used for decades to compensate for poor husbandry, low animal welfare and high levels of stress and disease in intensive farming. Farming accounts for about two-thirds of all antibiotic use in Europe, so if the legislation is implemented correctly, we should see very large reductions in use in years to come. However, the UK has still not committed to adopting this legislation when we leave the EU. Spokespeople under Theresa May’s Government said there are intentions to implement the provisions of the new legislation but cite ambiguity in the wording as a reason for not fully adopting it, a claim with which we disagree.

As a campaigning organisation, The Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics believes that adopting the EU legislation post-Brexit, is a vital next step for the UK to ensure we stay on top of antibiotic use in farming. Whilst great progress has been made by our farmers in recent years to reduce antibiotic usage – in particular, cutting back on the most critical antibiotics – we are entering a new trading landscape and we need the safeguard of regulation to help us maintain this good status.

To read more, see the Alliance’s latest report.

Photograph: Dzivnieku Briviba

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