10% fall in UK antibiotic sales shows farming industry is rising to challenge of antimicrobial resistance

A 10% reduction in sales of antibiotics for use in food-producing animals in the UK has been described as ‘very encouraging’ by RUMA, the agricultural and food industry alliance which promotes responsible use of medicines in farm animals.

As well as showing the reduction in average sales from 62mg per Population Correction Unit (PCU – equivalent to kg) to 56mg/PCU, the newly-issued 2015 sales data reported by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) indicates a fall in sales of some critically important antibiotics (CIAs) – 3% in fluoroquinolones, 11% in 3rd generation cephalosporins – and an overall 9% drop in tonnes of antibiotics used.

RUMA Secretary General John FitzGerald says: “We are delighted to see the hard work that has been taking place in the farming industry over the past couple of years is already paying off.

“This is a complex challenge and it’s a fine balance to reduce and refine use of antibiotics without compromising animal welfare. These results bode well for the 2016 figures as momentum builds in tackling the challenge of antibiotic resistance in farm animals.”

Of particular note, says Mr FitzGerald, is a 23 tonne (10%) reduction in sales of products licensed for both pigs and poultry, and 16 tonne (24%) fall in pig-only products. The poultry meat industry, which records data for 90% of the national flock under its British Poultry Council antibiotic stewardship scheme, also reports a reduction of 27% in use over 2014. Sales into fish farming have fallen by 71% and totalled just 0.7 tonne in 2015.

He adds that despite the reductions, populations of resistant bacteria monitored by the VMD appear relatively static; resistance levels in Salmonella isolates, notable to critically important antibiotics, from cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry remain low and resistance demonstrated by cattle mastitis pathogens is broadly similar to previous years.

Furthermore, what appears to be an increase in pig samples testing positive for the ESBL E. coli bacteria that transfer resistance is actually due to a change in testing methodology, with parallel testing using the previous method showing little change from two years ago when it was last the turn of the pig sector to be tested.

Mr FitzGerald says: “This means we are not seeing any increased risk to humans from transmission of antimicrobial resistance through food, and good kitchen hygiene rules still apply – washing hands after handling raw meat and thorough cooking of meat will almost completely prevent the transmission of resistant bacteria.

“However, these findings do highlight the challenge; tackling antibiotic resistance is going to take more than just a reduction in use – we need a multi-faceted approach which includes strategic use of a range of medicines to reduce and eliminate disease pressure while we also increase inherent immunity to disease among our farm animals.”

In response to the O’Neill report released in May 2016, RUMA has set up a Targets Task Force including researchers, farming organisations, farmers and practising vets, which will work alongside the VMD to help identify meaningful objectives for each farming sector towards reducing and refining antibiotics. The group is due to report its recommendations in 2017.