Just like people, some farm animals will occasionally become unwell. When this happens, using antibiotics therapeutically can sometimes be the only way to get them well again.
However, although some important progress has been made in recent years, almost all intensive livestock production depends on the routine use of antibiotics, mostly administered in feed or drinking water.
Most of these antibiotics are closely related to essential antibiotics used in human medicine. There is mounting evidence that the antibiotic resistant genes that develop in bacteria on and in animals routinely receiving antibiotics can transfer via food, direct contact or the environment, to bacteria that cause infections in humans, meaning that the infections they cause no longer respond to the antibiotics prescribed by GPs and in hospitals.
An example of this is the E. coli bacteria that cause urinary tract infections and blood poisoning. Large numbers of people are affected every year with antibiotic resistant E. coli infections and part of the problem has been traced to the use of antibiotics on intensive farms.
How did we get here?
The relatively easy availability of antibiotics is one of the key factors which makes the factory farming of animals possible. Before the routine use of antibiotics was first permitted in 1950, at a time when they had only just become available for use in human medicine, almost all livestock were kept in free-range systems because it had been found impossible to keep them healthy and alive in confined, intensive conditions.
The unnatural conditions on intensive livestock farms means that many of the animals do not develop good immune systems and are highly vulnerable to infection. Having large numbers of animals cooped up indoors together means that infections can spread rapidly between the animals. As a result, vets feel obliged to prescribe antibiotics for all animals in a herd or flock, even if only a small number are unwell, or suspected of becoming unwell.
And it’s not just farm animals…
A few medically important antibiotics are also used in horticulture and even sprayed on apples in the US. In addition, recent evidence indicates that some widely-used herbicides, such as glyphosate, can also trigger antibiotic resistance, while antibiotic resistant bacteria on vegetable crops most probably come from the use of river water for irrigation, downstream of either sewage works or factory farms.
Maximum Growth: Whatever the Cost
Our report, published in December 2020, found that cattle, pig, chicken and turkey farms in the United States are routinely using four antibiotics that have been banned in the UK for all purposes and two others that have never been permitted in the UK, for growth promotion. The drugs are used at low levels in feed for prolonged periods to make animals grow faster and/or to suppress diseases of intensification in beef feedlots and other factory farms. This creates the ideal conditions for the development of antibiotic resistance.
US beef cattle, pigs and turkeys are also fed the beta-agonist ractopamine as the animals approach slaughter weights, to increase growth still further and make them 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.
How this impacts the UK
As well as impacting US consumers, and potentially UK citizens when they visit the US, this problem could also impact UK consumers if the Government succeeds in agreeing trade deals with the US Government or with individual states.
While the UK government banned the use of hormone growth promoters in cattle more than thirty years ago, the US is one of the countries that still permits the use of hormones in beef production, in addition to antibiotics, to make cattle grow faster. One of the widely used products even contains antibiotics and hormones together.
The current situation in the UK
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. This is to be welcomed but the situation is not quite as encouraging as it appears as there have been large increases in a class of antibiotics known as ionophores. These are categorised separately as they are used to control parasites rather than bacteria. They are also not used to treat infections in humans. Nevertheless, some of them have been identified as having the potential to be used as treatment for cancer, bacteria and viruses. In contrast, to the UK situation, the overall use of antibiotics in the US is more than five times higher per kilo of meat produced than in the UK, and eight times more for beef and turkey meat.
Our letter to the Secretary of State for the Environment
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.”
There has been an alarming rise in antibiotic resistance which is becoming a major threat to public health. An estimated 33,000 people in the UK/EU and an estimated 35,000 people in the US already die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections. In the US, 2.8 million people actually develop a resistant infection each year. Most of these currently recover because a few antibiotics are still effective. But this indicates how many people could be at risk of dying if we continue to misuse antibiotics. Antibiotics of last resort do still save the lives of many people who develop highly resistant infections, but many of these antibiotics are toxic and can have severe side-effects. The extra treatment costs and time in hospital are also a huge burden for healthcare systems and for individuals, some of whom are left disabled by the side effects and never fully recover.
Antibiotics in food
Over-use of antibiotics in human medicine, especially over-prescribing by GPs, is believed to cause more direct problems for human medicine than the overuse on farms. But antibiotic resistant bacteria from farms can transfer to humans in a wide range of ways and contributes to treatment failures in human medicine.
Many foods end up containing residues of antibiotics and little consideration is currently given to the possible cumulative effect of low levels of antibiotics in food consumed by humans.
What we do
The Sustainable Food Trust is a founding member of the Global Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, and a member of the UK-based Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics.
We work to promote farming methods where animals are reared naturally and develop strong immune systems, and where antibiotics are only ever needed occasionally when animals become seriously ill.