EU continues reductions in farm antibiotic use – with UK still well-placed

Sales of antibiotics for farm animals in Europe have fallen again, signifying a reduction of over a third between 2011 and 2018. The UK retained its position as having the fifth lowest sales overall, 71% lower than the EU average in terms of mg/PCU, a standardised unit of animal biomass.

This is according to the 10th annual report from the European Surveillance of Veterinary Antimicrobial Consumption (ESVAC) examining antibiotic sales across different European countries in 2018, which was released today (21 October).

RUMA chair Cat McLaughlin welcomed the report, saying that it was good news that antibiotic use in European farm animals had fallen so significantly over the past seven years.

“It’s very positive to see this downward trend across almost all countries, not just in terms of total sales but also the highest priority antibiotics – 3rd and 4th generation cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones and colistin,” she said.

“While the use of antibiotics in food production is not the main driver of antibiotic resistant infections in people, it can be a contributing factor. Any use of an antibiotic has the potential to create resistance and as part of a One Health approach, we all have a duty to protect the efficacy of medical and veterinary antibiotics by reducing, refining or replacing use.”

She said that within the bigger European picture, the UK’s significant reductions in antibiotic use in farm animals over the past six years meant it remained among the lowest users of antibiotics overall – and the lowest among European countries with large domestic populations and farm animal sectors.

“The efforts and enthusiasm demonstrated by the UK livestock farmers and animal health practitioners to embrace RUMA principles of using antibiotics and other veterinary medicines responsibly to achieve these results has been phenomenal,” said Ms McLaughlin.

While the ESVAC report compares 2018 data across European countries, UK figures for 2019 sales of antibiotics for farm animals are due out shortly as well. New sector-specific targets for the UK livestock industry 2021-2024 are also scheduled to be released in November. The last targets, developed by a ‘Targets Task Force’ (TTF) representing nine different livestock sectors in 2017, run their course at the end of 2020.

Ms McLaughlin explained that as UK farming neared the end of the period of time covered by the original TTF targets, most goals had now been achieved or had run their course and need revisiting.

“We’ve seen many livestock sectors facing new disease and environmental challenges, or experience challenges with data collection. This makes the forthcoming release of the new targets and a ‘reset’ of activities very timely.”

Some sectors saw a small uptick in antibiotic use in 2019 to address specific disease challenges, so were treating animals to safeguard health and welfare as well as food safety. But overall, the UK remained in a very good place she said.

“While these challenges are likely to be reflected in the 2019 sales data out shortly, the improvements in husbandry, management and responsible use that underpin the broader direction of travel are proving robust and widely beneficial.

“So I would like to thank everyone, on RUMA’s behalf, for these continuing efforts. What we are seeing is a true demonstration of what can be achieved when people come together voluntarily to just do the right thing.”

Sales of antibiotics in UK and across Europe in 2018 (ESVAC)

UK average (mg/PCU) EU country average (mg/PCU)

2016 2017 2018 2016 2017 2018
Total Use 39 32.5 29.5 124.6 107.0 103.2
Fluoroquinolones 0.2 0.2 0.1 2.7 2.4 2.5
3rd and 4th Gen Cephalosporins 0.1 0.1 0.1 0.2 0.2 0.2
Polymyxins (colistin) 0.02 <0.01 <0.01 6.4 3.6 3.4