Government response to O’Neill findings welcomed amid calls for joined-up leadership and capital investment

The headline requirements for farming set out in the Government response to the O’Neill Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, published today (16 September 2016), have been welcomed by the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) Alliance.

But concerns have been expressed over how the multi-agency approach will work, and whether the industry can access the capital investment needed to create a greater step-change in antibiotic use.

RUMA, which works independently with organisations involved in all stages of the animal food chain from ‘farm to fork’, said it recognised the need for the ambitious target for farming set out in the report, alongside the goals for human medicine stewardship.

“The UK farming industry is being asked to play its part, in reducing antibiotic use by around 19% by 2018 based on sales recorded by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate in 2014,” explained John FitzGerald, RUMA’s secretary general.

“This will be testing, but we are confident and determined that the industry can rise to the challenge. While the O’Neill report suggested achieving this level of use within 10 years, we understand the need for the UK to take a lead, and believe we can deliver this reduction by 2018.

“We also appreciate the faith the Government has placed in the industry to work with the regulator in developing its own sector-specific objectives to reduce, refine and replace use of antibiotics,” he added.

“Included in this is use of antibiotics of critical medical importance, which we have been given an opportunity to steward effectively and potentially preserve as a last resort to protect animal welfare. Again, we accept this challenge, and are currently setting up a ‘Targets Task Force’ to help identify these objectives by 2017, alongside timescales for their delivery.”

However, Mr FitzGerald said RUMA was disappointed that in the response, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) had not acknowledged the industry guidelines for use of antibiotics that were already in place through RUMA.

“The FSA outlines a commitment to encourage the food chain to develop standards for responsible use of antibiotics. We would hope that rather than recreating standards, the RUMA guidelines, written by specialist vets and updated periodically, will be reviewed and augmented as deemed necessary.

“It’s important that existing resources and initiatives such as these don’t get overlooked as the various Government departments and agencies come together to tackle this issue. We need clear leadership from one Government department to help pull this together, and suggest it comes from Defra through the VMD, with the FSA and Environment Agency linking in through these bodies.”

Finally, said Mr FitzGerald, there was no recognition in the report of the huge role capital investment could play in reducing the need for antibiotics in farming, and where that investment could come from.

“Farmers have already identified housing and infrastructure as a major challenge. In pig farming, some aspects of poultry production and calf-rearing especially, modern housing with improved ventilation and hygiene could provide a step-change in the need for antibiotics to treat diseases linked to these factors.

“But with many sectors continuing to work off tiny margins and competing with European and global imports, the Government needs to take a serious look at how it can ‘prime the pump’ when the market is unlikely to provide sufficient returns to fund these changes itself,” explained Mr FitzGerald.

“Government investment or match funding in competitor countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark has allowed significant improvements to facilities leading to a reduction in antibiotic use. Such an approach in the UK would address a similar failure in the market and accelerate positive change.”