Food report from pressure groups misleads on antibiotics

A new report compiled by a consortium of pressure groups (‘Principles for eating meat and dairy more sustainably’) [1] incorrectly links higher antibiotic use in farm animals with more efficient and productive (so called ‘intensive’) farming systems.

There is no representative data in the UK to substantiate this claim. In fact, a number of poultry, pig and dairy farms operating such systems in this country have provided individual data to show exceptionally low use of antibiotics. It is clear that quality of management remains the main determinant of the health and welfare of the animals on any farm, and therefore the level of antibiotic treatment required.

The report also fails to acknowledge that antibiotic use in UK farm animals is significantly lower than the EU average – by some 60% [2]. In fact, a 27% reduction in farm animal sales in the UK in the past two years [3] means use of antibiotics in farm animals is estimated to now be less than a third of all antibiotics used in this country [4]. This is despite UK farmers rearing and managing over a billion farm animals every year in a wide variety of systems.

UK sales for use in farm animals of colistin, an antibiotic of highest priority for use in human medicine, are also extremely low, recorded at just 2% of the EU recommended maximum. This is because colistin is tightly restricted and used only in cases of absolute last resort to prevent animal suffering.

Last year the UK livestock sectors set challenging targets to further reduce, refine and replace antibiotic use [5], which were welcomed and endorsed by the regulator, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, and the UK’s Chief Veterinary Officers. Requirements to submit usage data and implement reduction strategies with farm vets have also been integrated into Red Tractor assurance standards [6].

With strict withdrawal periods after treatment with antibiotics already ensuring that all UK meat and dairy products are ‘antibiotic-free’ when they enter the food chain, there is ample evidence of good – and further improving – stewardship of antibiotics across every farming system in the UK, irrespective of intensity.



[2] ECDC/EFSA/EMA second joint report on the integrated analysis of the consumption of antimicrobial agents and occurrence of antimicrobial resistance in bacteria from humans and food-producing animals: Joint Interagency Antimicrobial Consumption and Resistance Analysis (JIACRA) Report, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control

[3] Record low for sales of antibiotics for use in animals, Defra & Veterinary Antimicrobial Resistance and Sales Surveillance 2016, VMD

[4] Estimation updated from figures provided in the One Health Report 2015 ( using 2013 data, where human use was calculated at 56% and animal including pets at 44%; use in pets was estimated around 8-9% of the total. Since then, sales to food producing animals fell 27% 2014-2016, and human prescriptions are likely to have reduced by 5% according to the ESPAUR 2017 report ( If use in pets has remained static, this indicates sales for farm animals are now less than a third of the total.

[5] RUMA Targets Task Force

[6] Responsible Use of Antibiotics on Red Tractor Farms; specific rules for pig producers