Former NPA chairman, Richard Lister, shares with RUMA his insights and experiences on the antibiotic stewardship journey of the Pig Sector

RUMA spoke to the former chair of the National Pig Association (NPA), Richard Lister, to hear his experiences and insights of working across the pig sector for more than two decades with a particular focus on the sector’s great antibiotic stewardship achievements.

Richard, who operates three pig breeding units, was NPA Chair for six years from 2015 but has been on the board for more than 20 years and today remains heavily involved in the NPA. Richard is also part of the RUMA Targets Task Force (TTF) and plays a key role in co-ordinating the setting of antibiotic reduction targets for the pig sector.

He has previously described the NPA as a ‘second family’ with a ‘great sense of camaraderie’ and says that everyone is so helpful, supportive and driven; just a few of the qualities that he believes have helped drive such positive change in the sector’s antibiotic reduction achievements over the past decade. eMB-Pigs data published by AHDB for 2021 shows that antibiotic usage for the pig sector was 87mg/PCU in 2021, a decline of 17% on the previous year which equates to an overall reduction of 69% since 2015.

Reflecting on the start of the sector’s stewardship journey, Richard, says: “ With the publication of the O’Neill report in 2016 and the messages and recommendations contained within it, the pig industry recognised it needed to review its use of antibiotics and reduce where appropriate; specifically it needed to focus on minimising the use of those antibiotics classed as Highest Priority Critically Important (HP-CIAs).

“As a food producer, the sector has a key role to play in reducing AMR, not least to maintain the efficacy of antibiotics in human health , but also in animal health.

“What makes me incredibly proud is how the sector took on the challenge with such positivity and intent to make a positive change. And the headlines so far speak for themselves. The industry has voluntarily achieved a 69% reduction over a period of seven years, and has taken the use of the Highest Priority Critically Important antibiotics to negligible levels.”

Explaining how, in practical terms that has been achieved, Richard, says: “The partnership and co-operation between pig producers and vets has been crucial in delivering these changes. The implementation of antibiotic stewardship as part of Red Tractor (RT) and Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) assurance schemes emphasised the importance of this to the industry and gave it the priority that was needed to focus attention and change behaviour. Alongside the strong vet-farmer relations, there has been huge co-operation and support in data gathering with the development of the e-medicine book for pigs (e-MB-Pigs from AHDB). The sector has embraced this digital tool and did so pretty quickly, recognising why data collection was so important in protecting the reputation of the sector. This has been impressive given that the introduction of any new system requires training, buy-in, commitment and enthusiasm; none of which has been in short supply across the sector which is why such great results have been realised over a fairly short period of time.”

RUMA Targets Task Force (TTF)

When asked about the role the RUMA Targets Task Force (TTF) targets have played in the sector’s antibiotic stewardship work, Richard, says: “For the pig industry the RUMA TTF is really the focal point for a huge amount of collaboration between the Pig Veterinary Society, Pig producers and The National Pig Association and the Pig Health & Welfare Council’s (PH&WC) AMU Stewardship sub-group.

“Arriving at an actual figure was one of the most challenging tasks, and alongside ‘hard’ targets there were a range of general ambitions and initiatives that also formed part of the TTF framework. The actual TTF figure in reality is what the industry is judged upon. In setting the ‘hard’ targets it’s about finding a balance between feasibility and also making sure the target is challenging enough. Undoubtedly, at the start of the TTF journey there were a great many challenges facing the pig sector, not least a high antibiotic usage figure, and a need to change behaviour and the approach to antibiotic use. Importantly, pig producers and vets took onboard the recommendations from the O’Neill report, consumer expectations, and the discussions taking place within the industry to drive change. The communication, particularly through the NPA and its regional meetings at the start of this journey, was instrumental in raising the profile of antibiotic stewardship right across the industry – it’s now part of everyday language and is embedded into the whole culture and infrastructure of the sector.

“The other sector experiences shared through the TTF were also helpful in shaping our strategy. All sectors were at very different stages of the process, so there were some great learnings to take onboard to help influence our approach. Getting the message out across the industry was the first challenge, but buy-in came quickly and, as the industry started to make progress and was successful, I believe this actually helped drive more motivation and buy-in, as people naturally wanted to be part of that success and didn’t want to be seen to be letting the rest of the industry down in any way.”

Data collection

Data collection for any sector is fundamental in helping to set realistic targets, benchmark and drive change. Richard says: “Back in 2015, AHDB had created the eMB-Pigs platform for gathering industry data. We didn’t want to just collect going forward, but set ourselves the challenge of collecting a year’s worth of data retrospectively to help give us important insights to help inform the journey ahead.

“I think we managed to collect around 60% of the previous year’s data which was pretty good going. This gave us a solid baseline from which to set our targets, without which the targets would have lacked focus and evidence. e-MB-Pigs has given us vital intelligence from which to make informed decisions. Over preceding years as with any online tool, it’s been about ongoing evolution and optimisation to strengthen the speed of data collection, accuracy, as well as creating a process for those producers whose usage is considered high on a regular basis – Persistently High Users (PHU’s) – and putting in the right support to help address that. Once we had established the system of collection and benchmarking , it became clear some producers may need further help and/or motivation to reduce usage. I think we are still at an early stage with this process but early indications of progress are good. The PHU’s process is a tactic that has to be used if there are producers and vets who fall into this category. High use can serve a purpose on occasion where there is disease outbreak, but if this is habitual then we felt this had to be challenged and the industry is responding well to this.

“All these opportunities and challenges have been responded to through the Pig Health & Welfare Council’s (PH&WC) AMU Stewardship sub-group involving cross industry representation.”

International perspectives

Asked whether the UK pig industry is leading the way on antibiotic stewardship, Richard says: “I believe our data collection system is probably one of a handful that is at the forefront, globally, of benchmarking and robustness. The way producers have accepted and voluntarily supported this process is probably unique.

“There are numerous approaches in the EU towards collating data and reducing usage – Northern Europe is leading the way too. The rest of the world is some way behind in tackling this issue.”

How low can the pig sector go?

Richard is keen to point out that zero use is neither realistic nor safe – antibiotics will always have a place in the treatment toolkit. But when considering the pig sector’s current 2024 target of 75mg/PCU, he says: “Realistically, I think we would like to be below 50mg/PCU as a large part of the industry is already there, but there are plenty of challenges, in particular zinc removal. We are hopeful of reaching the 2024 target, but are realistic that this is not going to be easy and will require a huge effort.”

Recent challenges and the future

In the recent RUMA TTF Report it was clear to see that the past few years have been challenging for the sector (poor returns, disruption to the slaughter supply chain, increased feed prices) yet despite that, there has still been a 17% YOY reduction. Richard explains how that has that been achieved: “Given the huge difficulties producers encountered during the last 12-24 months we were pleased to achieve the 17% reduction. Vet-farmer discussions and attention to the little things are important, but I think the vaccination policies in place on farm have also played a key role and have enabled this reduction.

“As for the future, I think the pig sector is heading in a really positive direction. There have been lots of learnings along the way, and great achievements. The sector is committed to continually to reviewing and assessing what opportunities exist to achieve sustainable antibiotic reductions to protect the efficacy of these important medicines for animals and people long into the future.”

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