Public sector standards may be feeding antibiotic crisis

WITH CHILDREN well into their new school year, a first of its kind report by the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics finds that inadequate Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering, and 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, fish and eggs served in many schools, universities, colleges, and healthcare establishments.

Antibiotic resistance is a growing global problem, caused by the overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals. Each year about 7,600 deaths in the UK and 1.27 million worldwide are caused by antibiotic resistance.

Despite the scale of the problem, the report ‘Catering companies – feeding the antibiotic crisis?’ finds that catering companies are failing to guard against antibiotic overuse in their supply chains.

Five companies, apetito, ISS, Newrest, OCS, and WSH, have no publicly available antibiotic policy. The other five companies, Aramark, CH&CO, Compass Group, Elior and Sodexo, do have antibiotic policies, but none of them currently prohibit the routine use of antibiotics or collect any data on antibiotic use in their supply chains.

Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services, which establish minimum standards for catering in public-sector organisations, also make no mention of the need for responsible antibiotic use. These standards are currently being reviewed and a government response to a consultation will be published later this year. Unfortunately, the government’s proposals for new standards, published last year, still make no mention of any antibiotic standards.

Cóilín Nunan of the Alliance said: “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. All caterers should source food produced without routine antibiotic use and make more effort to source animal foods from farming systems that have higher levels of animal health and welfare. The [UK] government needs to introduce antibiotic standards for public procurement urgently, backed up by effective monitoring and enforcement. The government says that it aims to deliver higher quality meals to hospitals and schools, but unless it takes action on antibiotic use, it will be failing to protect the health of patients and children.”

The UK contract-catering industry is big business, with a market value of £4.4 billion, and is involved in serving some of the most vulnerable people in society, including young people.  Nine out ten of the companies supply educational establishments (eight in the UK) and nine supply healthcare establishments (eight in the UK).

Consultant Microbiologist, Dr Giuditta Sanna said: “I am shocked to learn that while my colleagues and I are dealing with patients with untreatable life-threatening infections and are making so much effort to limit our own use of antibiotics, the catering companies that provide NHS and school meals are doing such a poor job of controlling antibiotic use in their supply chains. They should not be permitting routine antibiotic use in food-producing animals, just to compensate for the unhygienic conditions in which many of these animals are kept.”

Intensive Care Consultant and Founder of the UK Sepsis Trust, Dr Ron Daniels said, “Sepsis already claims more lives worldwide than cancer: if we can’t treat simple infections because of antibiotic resistance then tens of millions more people will die each year, meaning that antibiotic resistance is a more immediate threat to our species than climate change. Addressing this demands action from all stakeholders, with the wasteful use of antibiotics for routine prevention in intensive farming an infuriatingly low-hanging fruit”.

The companies surveyed supply food to NHS hospitals, schools, colleges and universities, and to Government departments and the military. They also cater for large-scale events such as Twickenham, Wimbledon, the Royal Opera House, and Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew Gardens), and at venues like Olympia London, QEII Centre, the O2 arena, London Zoo, and Edinburgh Castle. Some also supply staff canteens or high-street brands like Costa, Subway and M&S.

British farm antibiotic use has been reduced by 55% since 2014, following voluntary action by farmers, vets and supermarkets. A campaign by the Alliance and initiatives like the Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare (BBFAW), have helped encourage the UK’s ten leading supermarkets to all adopt antibiotic policies which ban routine preventative use in their own-brand UK produce.

However, the Alliance’s research into catering companies has found their antibiotic policies are lagging well behind those of UK supermarkets.

The key findings of the report are:

  • Five companies, apetito, ISS, Newrest, OCS, and WSH, have no publicly available antibiotic policy
  • Five companies, Aramark, CH&CO, Compass Group, Elior and Sodexo, do have antibiotic policies, however all of them currently permit antibiotics to be used routinely
  • None of the companies collect any data on antibiotic use in their supply chain
  • Just three catering companies, Aramark, CH&CO and Compass Group, state in their antibiotic policy that they intend to end routine preventative antibiotic use, and only CH&CO declares that this will be achieved by 2024
  • Elior is the only catering company whose policy restricts the use of antibiotics that the World Health Organization has classified as “highest-priority critically important in human medicine”
  • One of the companies, ISS, recently secured a catering contract with Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), despite having no antibiotic policy

Read the report, Catering companies – feeding the antibiotic crisis?

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