RUMA in conversation with AHDB about eMB-Pigs

RUMA’s Secretary General, Chris Lloyd, speaks to Mandy Nevel, Head of Animal Health and Welfare at AHDB, to talk about the ground-breaking development of the eMedicine Book for pigs (eMB-Pigs) by AHDB, which is a UK-wide on-line service that enables producers to record their total antibiotic usage data and, optionally, act as the full legal medicine book for the pig holding.

Chris: “Can you please share how the idea for e-MB-Pigs first came about.”

Mandy: “Back in 2014, the Pig Health and Welfare Council (PHWC) arranged an antibiotic resistance roundtable during which the pig industry, alongside Government, agreed that a centralised data collection system was needed. Trust and independence of data collection were priorities for the industry and AHDB were considered best placed to develop a system and hold the data on behalf of our levy payers. This was all happening around the time of the commissioning of the O’Neill report which we knew was going to make some key recommendations, one of which included better collection of data. We already recognised across UK agriculture that there was a growing need for reliable data collection on antibiotic use and our work with the pig sector started to set the direction of travel and created a centralised blueprint which has led the way in UK agriculture.”

Chris: “Tell us about the importance of industry collaboration, how you got stakeholder buy-in and were there any challenges along the way?

Mandy: “It started with good leadership! Leadership along with, ownership and accountability have been key and continue to be fundamental to the success of eMB-Pigs to this day. A few forward thinking veterinary surgeons and farmers could see that without evidence to demonstrate what the industry was doing, the pig sector would be in a difficult position to defend its reputation and demonstrate its responsible use credentials. They led the call for change in the sector and without them, the industry would not have followed. Routine veterinary reviews were already a part of life in the pig sector , and antibiotic data were already being collected by farmers. However, the need for national data was growing as the industry needed to defend how it was using antibiotics – increasingly, the pig sector was being targeted as a high user, and needed the evidence to support it in demonstrating it was acting responsibly. That initial group of farmers and vets garnered support from others in the sector and before long, support for a central data collection system grew. AHDB provided the financial backing with initial start-up costs also supported by QMS and the VMD. The industry also asked the assurance schemes, Red Tractor (RT) and Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), to help by making antibiotic data collection a requirement which helped ensure data capture was given proper focus and prioritised accordingly.

“Via the Pig Health and Welfare Council (PHWC) Antimicrobial usage (AMU) subgroup, which supports change in the pig industry regarding responsible use of antimicrobials and recognises the need to safeguard antimicrobials for future generations and reduce the risk of resistance developing, all stakeholders came together to identify a need. All agreed to act together to play their part in the development and roll out of eMB-Pigs, even those that had been collecting data using standalone systems. The standalone systems were good for individual farms, but for the reputation of the whole industry we needed a centralised system which could show the national figure.

“Before uploading data became a requirement of the Assurance Schemes, there was a natural learning curve experienced by the industry in using the eMB-Pigs. Introducing anything new like this will always take time to embed, but there was real appetite to embrace this new system right across the pig sector – winning hearts and minds wasn’t an issue; it all came down to giving users the guidance they needed to use the technology.”

Chris: “Has using technology been an issue for some producers in terms of entering their usage data?

Mandy: “When eMB-Pigs  was first developed there were concerns raised about the level of technology and training that might be required to be able to use the database. We listened to the levy payers and how they would use the system to make the user journey as easy as possible. We created and utilised a number of support resources and services which have helped producers to enter and upload their data. To help on a practical level, several resources were developed by AHDB including:

  • A quick start user guide (with video support)
  • Agent nomination function (e.g. vet or farm admin support)
  • Help desk support via the bureau at AHDB
  • A dedicated AHDB engagement team”

Chris: “What are the capabilities of eMB-Pigs for anyone outside of the pig sector who may not know?

Mandy: “In simple terms, eMB-Pigs allows pig producers to maintain a record of their antibiotic usage. They can do this either by entering the total amount of each antibiotic used directly in to eMB-Pigs or using it in place of a paper medicine book to record each medicine treatment. The system then allows the user to collate and review their antibiotic usage – this includes identifying where most antibiotics are used, and potentially the reasons for the use. Vets can work with producers to look in detail at use and identify if there are areas that can be refined. Most pig producers submit data four times a year which allows trends and seasonal patterns to be observed – again helping vets decide if any action needs to be taken. The benchmarking also allows individual farmers to see how they compare (anonymously) to other similar units.

“This system has been a gamechanger; it has opened up the conversation between vets and their clients, allowing them to actively review their antibiotic use data and make evidence led management decisions. The PHWC has also developed responsible use guides which are available on the Pig Veterinary Society (PVS), AHDB and RUMA websites.

“Data on eMB-Pigs represents 95% of the pig industry which means it provides a truly comprehensive picture of antibiotic use and trends – this is invaluable to the ongoing journey of responsible use. The eMB has also helped support the journey of other sectors with regard to data collection. For example, the ruminant sector, although known to be a low user of antibiotics, has recognised the reputational value of a national dataset and this has seen the development and launch of Medicine Hub (MH) from AHDB, which is based on eMB-Pigs. The ruminant sector is much larger than the pig sector however, so populating MH will be a much bigger and longer task but, the journey is underway and eMB-Pigs has certainly played a key role in influencing the approach being taken by other sectors.”

Chris: “As you’ve mentioned, some producers already had systems in place for collecting antibiotic data. How did you convince them of the advantages of using a national system instead and were there any barriers to overcome?”

Mandy: “There was a lot of targeted communication to ensure the sector knew that the development of this platform was about underpinning the reputation of the industry and changing some of the incorrect narrative that was being laid at the door of the pig sector with regard to antibiotic use not being where it should be. Gathering robust data would help ensure the sector could demonstrate its positive responsible use credentials and would enable it to use evidence to challenge any negative commentary.

“AHDB listened to producers and vets to develop a system that was easy to use – collaboration was key. We were engaging with both large pig companies and individual producers to ensure the system being created reflected the needs of the sector. AHDB also developed networks with key stakeholders such as the National Pig Association (NPA), devolved governments, and vets. That was then followed by the Assurance Schemes bringing in the data capture requirement into their standards. It was a complete 360 degree industry collaboration that made the launch of eMB-Pigs so successful.”

Chris: “Protection of producers’ data was a very big focus for eMB-Pigs. Talk us through how the system delivers that ‘protection’ and how did you provide that reassurance to producers?”

Mandy: “The data within eMB-Pigs belong to the farmer. From day one this has been the clear stance and remit. AHDB is in a fortunate position to be able to independently collate the data before sharing anonymised, aggregated data on total antibiotic usage within the pig sector to stakeholder organisations such as the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) & RUMA. Where there is deemed to be a benefit to the levy payer, anonymised data may be shared with non commercial research groups. Any other sharing of data must be authorised by the producer as the owner of the data.”

Chris: “Can you summarise the key benefits that the eMB-Pigs brings to the sector please?”

Mandy: “The data collected through eMB-Pigs places the pig industry in a strong position to defend its reputation on responsible use of antibiotics both with consumers, but also with regard to food trade. Antibiotic use is becoming an increasingly important trade issue and being able to demonstrate that we are using antibiotics responsibly is critical in trade discussions. In addition, the EU requires members states to report a national aggregated antibiotic use figure annually from all farms and to continue trading, the UK needs to match this.”

Chris: “Do you know if many vets / producers make use of the benchmarking tool to influence their management decisions?”

Mandy: “The benchmarking tool is widely used across the industry and has created an industry-wide behaviour change effect resulting in a 69% drop in use since 2015. Many vets attribute the reduction in antibiotic use directly to using the benchmarking tool and continuous monitoring of antibiotic use. The system does not provide metrics on who has accessed the benchmarking graphs as they are available on the dashboard for each holding.”

Chris: “The introduction of the Persistently High Users (PHU) was a development in the second phase of the Pig sector RUMA Targets Task Force (TTF) Targets 2 - do you feel this is having a positive effect on those who have been flagged so far and are there any lessons to learn here for other sectors?”

Mandy: “TTF 2 introduced a scheme to identify users who are in the top 5% of use for their holding type over a 12 month period. It is intended to encourage these PHUs to discuss their usage with their vet to identify whether any changes can be, or need to be, made. eMB-Pigs was developed to include a benchmarking facility for use over a 12 month period and highlight those users in the top 10% and 5% for their holding type. This went live in July 2021 and since then the thresholds have reduced for all holding types, demonstrating the positive effect of introducing the PHU benchmarking and consequently encouraging the farmer vet engagement.

“As the majority of the industry are responsible users of antibiotics, there is reducing tolerance of the small number of producers who fail to see their use as impacting the reputation of the sector. We anticipate that industry will call for increasing demands on the handful of producers who may put at risk the fantastic work the rest of the industry has done, and for which they are rightly proud.

“It is also worth noting that high levels of antibiotic use may in fact be responsible. For example, in response to disease outbreaks or in disease elimination programmes, then responsible use becomes important to manage health and welfare effectively.”

Chris: “We know that the system can highlight information on which antibiotics are used and identifies PHUs encouraging them to develop strategies to reduce use, but are there also other capabilities of eMB-Pigs that are yet to be realised?

Mandy: “Short-term we are looking at creating additional reports to help identify the PHU’s within larger businesses or clients for vet practices. This will make it easier to highlight holdings that may need additional support. Long-term areas of interest that are yet to be explored include:

  • Cost benefit analysis of reduced use for both producers and vet practices
  • Linking with other data sets to predict where use may be required e.g. weather or abattoir data
  • The environmental impact of reduced antibiotic use
  • Recording of anthelmintic use
  • AMR data

Chris: “Thank you Mandy for sharing this important insight. Any final comments?”

Mandy: “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about this important industry initiative which I know has been a gamechanger and has helped support the direction of travel for many other sectors. I am delighted to be part of such a proactive and responsible sector, one which  should be incredibly proud of all it has achieved and continues to achieve.”

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