One of the RUMA conference Gold Sponsors, NFU, dispels some of the myths about antibiotic use in farming

RUMA is delighted to welcome the support of the NFU as one of our GOLD sponsors for the forthcoming RUMA conference, which is being held online on the 18 November 2021. Tickets are available for purchase via this link.

The NFU are delighted to sponsor and take part in the RUMA 2021 conference. As founding members of the alliance, we remain committed to its goals and promoting these to society through a range of activities, particularly the conference. Considering recent global events, the publication of the Target Task Force report for 2020 and the setting of new targets for 2021-2024, we see this conference as a great opportunity to reflect on all that has been achieved and now set focus on the next phase of activity.

The first known antibiotic, Penicillin, was discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming. Its discovery revolutionised human and animal medicine, making what we now think of as minor conditions treatable and complex emergency surgery possible. Humans and animals of farmed or companion species in particular, benefit from access to antibiotics, but the debate around use of antibiotics in farming is surrounded by conflicting and confusing information. We have asked Claire White, Senior Veterinary Adviser, from the NFU to dispel some of the myths.

Farm animals in the UK receive far fewer antibiotics than humans

The second ‘UK One Health Report’, compiled by the UK Government in 2019, stated that in 2017, 773 tonnes of antibiotic active ingredients were dispensed in the UK for use in people and animals. This represents an overall reduction of 19% between 2013 (analysis from the first UK One Health Report) and 2017. Tonnage used dropped by 6% in people and by 35% in animals.

Of the 773 tonnes, 64% was for use in people, 26% for use in food-producing animals only and 10% for use in companion animals and horses, but also in food-producing animals.

When the tonnage is corrected for bodyweight and population size of humans and animals at the likely time of treatment, the amount used in people was 123 mg/kg and the amount used in food-producing animals was 37 mg/kg. This represents a reduction of 9% and 40% respectively when compared to 2013 levels.

The responsible use of antibiotics by UK livestock farmers has gained global recognition.

The risk of human illness as a result of antibiotic resistance in farm animals, is actually quite low

For use of antibiotics in animals to be a problem to humans, a number of hurdles have to be overcome. The resistant bacteria have to be on or in the animal to start with. Only from there, can they be transferred directly to animal handlers. More commonly they would have to get into milk, meat or eggs, after which they must survive preparation and/or cooking. For example, this is via unhygienic food handling in the home or incorrect cooking. Then they must enter the human – most commonly by eating or drinking. After that, the bacteria need to survive the acid in the stomach before reaching the human intestine.

At this point, they must ‘colonise’ the human, frequently the gut and be able to enter his or her system. Bear in mind that most animal isolates do not colonise humans but often transiently pass through. In the case of Salmonella and Campylobacter, the bacteria in animals are the same as in humans. This means they could, in theory, colonise and cause problems in susceptible people, either the very young, old, or immune compromised.

Escherichia coli and Enterococcus bacteria don’t usually colonise or infect the human directly. However, they may occasionally transfer their resistance to the human-adapted strains of these bugs while passing through the gut. This is a complex sequence of events which rarely happens inside the human digestive system. Problems can arise if these human strains of bacteria which have acquired antibiotic resistance from animal strains of bacteria then manage to actively infect susceptible humans. This can reduce the effectiveness of the antibiotic therapy used to treat the infection.

Resistant bacteria are all around us

We find them on almost all surfaces, at work and at home. Studies have found them everywhere from computers keyboards to make-up bags and on public transport. In farming, they are on plants and animals, around large and small farms, in organic and conventional produce, and in pets and horses. This is because resistance develops naturally as bacteria defend themselves against attack from other microbes that produce antibiotics. Resistant bacteria millions of years old have been found in the ice caps and in the frozen remains of woolly mammoths.

Intensity and scale of farming does not affect the development of resistance

‘Factory farming’ is often suggested in the popular media as a key source of antibiotic resistance. But it’s the level of use and misuse of antibiotics that is the major factor – and this is not necessarily linked to farm scale or system. As mentioned above, resistant bacteria are found on large, small, conventional and organic farms alike.  There will always be circumstances in human or animal medicine where antibiotic cover is needed to enable a full recovery, say after an emergency operation to safely deliver a newborn. We always want to have the right antibiotics at our disposal to protect welfare and make the correct medical decisions in this way.

Antibiotics are rarely found in food

The use of veterinary medicines – including antibiotics – can sometimes result in low concentrations of the medicine being present within the animal’s system for a period of time, as it is being used to fight the bacterial infection. This is usually at a low level – measured in parts per million. Strict withdrawal periods are stipulated for each licensed medicine before the meat or milk from that animal is considered suitable to enter the food chain. These are based on rigorous testing regimes, and give time for medicines to be excreted from the animal or fall to a level that will not cause any adverse reaction in man should they be eaten. This means medicines must have almost entirely left the animal body by the time meat or milk can enter the food chain. In summary, the current debate is not about antibiotics found in food, but whether resistant bacteria are found in food and can they be transmitted to man.

Preventative treatment is sometimes the best course of action

Sometimes presented as ‘routine’ use to prevent disease, prophylactic (preventative) treatment is widely debated. It’s clear that the term means different things to different groups. There is, however, a widely held and justifiable belief, by both medics and vets, that controlled intervention to prevent the outbreak and further spread of disease in infected or carrier animals, based on sound professional examination and advice, is better than cure and is more likely to protect the long-term health and welfare of individuals or groups of animals. 

 Group-medication can sometimes be necessary

Far from the way it can be portrayed, oral treatment of groups of animals through their feed can be the most effective treatment method. This is especially if given before disease affects their appetite. Catching and injecting individual animals can be very stressful to the animal. Outdoor-reared animals, such as sows or free-range laying hens, drink rainwater in puddles, making application through the drinking water system unreliable and risks under-medication, which can fail to treat the illness and encourage bacterial resistance to develop. Large groups of poultry could equally be stressed by catching, especially if a course involving daily treatment is needed. Hence this makes individual treatment impractical and bad for welfare. In-feed medication may therefore provide the most practicable option in many cases. As a prescribed product, the medicated feed is regulated and controlled through all stages of its manufacture; from production to delivery and ultimately how it is used on the individual farm.  Products are only used in accordance with their authorised routes of administration, under strict prescribing rules followed by vets as part of their professional registration.

The RUMA Conference:

The Responsible use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA) conference, is being held online on Thursday 18 November 2021. Tickets are available for purchase via this link. The event has a packed programme covering:

  • the positive story of responsible use of medicines in UK farming
  • an introduction to the new RUMA organisation for companion animals and equine and its objectives
  • a look ahead to the UK animal medicines legislation
  • the international context for the responsible use of medicines
  • the story of the UK’s high health and welfare standards in international trade discussions
  • a look ahead to the next challenges for responsible use of animal medicines

There is a fantastic line-up of highly respected industry speakers from the UK and overseas who will be providing insight into a variety of responsible use topics, and there will also be an opportunity to put forward questions throughout the day. Secure your place today via this link .