UK government “fails to ban routine farm antibiotic use”

“DESPITE five years of promises,” the Soil Association says, “the Westminster government has failed to ban routine farm antibiotic use and the use of antibiotics to compensate for poor animal husbandry.”

The UK now lags behind the EU on this critical legislation to help tackle the antibiotic-resistance crisis, which threatens to undermine much of modern medicine.

The systematic overuse of antibiotics in human and animal medicine is undermining our ability to cure life-threatening infections in people, by greatly increasing the spread of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. Scientists predict that 10 million people a year could die from antibiotic resistant infections by 2050.

The government has still not published a response to its own public consultation, announced in June 2021 by then Defra Minister Victoria Prentis MP, which closed in March 2023. This is the critical next step towards improving legislation.

Cóilín Nunan of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics said, “How many more years is Defra going to keep on delaying before it does its job? The government says that using antibiotics routinely or to compensate for poor animal husbandry is unacceptable, but its lack of action means that the UK is now one of the only countries in Western Europe where these misuses of antibiotics remain legal. Farmers and vets have already taken action to cut farm antibiotic use, but much larger cuts are still needed, and they are only likely to happen if the government introduces new legislation.”

Marking World Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) Awareness week (18 – 24 November), the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics is calling on the UK government to finally live up to its commitments and produce new legislation which prohibits feeding antibiotics to animals routinely and end the use of antibiotics to control diseases caused by inadequate animal husbandry and poor hygiene.

Lord Goldsmith has added his voice to the call for action, saying that the “industrial use” of antibiotics used in industrialised farming systems is being used “simply to keep animals alive in miserable conditions they couldn’t otherwise survive”.

He told the PA news agency, “It is hard to think of a more reckless and irresponsible policy and while other countries have taken the step of banning the routine use of antibiotics on farms, we have not, despite promising to do so for years.

“Future generations will be outraged that in our failure to stand up to vested interests and lobby groups today we robbed them of the most important medical advance our species has ever known.

“If people really understood the implications, they would simply be enraged. The Government must put the interests of its people first and legislate now.”

The Westminster government has been promising new regulations for over five-years but continues to delay taking action. As a result, the UK has fallen behind the European Union (EU) where these practices were banned on 28 January 2022.

The EU rules on the use of farm antibiotics include a ban on using antibiotics preventatively on a whole herd or flock basis. They were agreed in 2018, when the UK was still a member of the EU.

Both the UK and the EU agreed that much stricter rules on farm antibiotic use were needed to help tackle the antibiotic-resistance crisis, which threatens to undermine much of modern medicine.

In October 2018, the Defra Secretary of State at the time, Michael Gove MP, said that the EU legislation was broadly in line with government policy and that government intended to implement it after consulting with stakeholders. The then Defra Minister, George Eustice MP, also said in Parliament in October 2018, “The UK Government plans to implement the restrictions on preventative use of antibiotics in line with the EU proposals.”

In 2019, the government’s National Action Plan on antimicrobial resistance again committed to taking action, saying, “Aligning with EU legislation, we will implement the provisions of the new EU Veterinary Medicines legislation on the use of antibiotics, subject to the official public consultation process”. Two years later, no action had been taken, but in June 2021, Victoria Prentis MP, then a Defra Minister, again said that the government was going to introduce provisions “similar to those in the EU”, subject to a public consultation.

In February of this year, the government finally published its proposed legislation and undertook a public consultation. Unfortunately, the government’s proposed legislation does not include a ban on preventative group treatments, as it had promised in Parliament in 2018, but does include some significant restrictions on routine use and on using antibiotics to compensate for bad husbandry.

In June, the government announced it was going to delay its response to the consultation until September. However, no government response has yet been published, there was no mention of this issue in the recent King’s Speech and there is still no deadline given for when new legislation will come into force.

The latest data published by the government’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate shows that the sales of farm antibiotics in the UK have fallen by 59% since 2014. This welcome reduction has occurred as a result of voluntary action by farmers, vets, supermarkets and assurance schemes.

Despite the reductions, antibiotic use in UK pigs remains over four times higher per pig than in Sweden, where the animals are kept less intensively and all forms of routine antibiotic use are banned.

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