RUMA in conversation with Grace Webster, Chair of the Pig Health & Welfare Council Antimicrobial Use Subgroup

RUMA chats with Grace Webster, Chair of the Pig Health & Welfare Council Antimicrobial Use Subgroup, about the sector’s antibiotic stewardship journey to date.

RUMA: “Why has AMR been an important issue for the pig sector?”

Grace: “Like all livestock sectors, following the publication of the O’Neill Report and the important messages within it, the pig sector recognised it needed to reduce its use of antibiotics, and specifically within that it needed to minimise the use of those antibiotics classed as Critically Important (HPCIAs). The industry knew that as a food producer it had a role to play in reducing AMR, not least to maintain the efficacy of antibiotics in human health , but also in animal health.”

RUMA: “In your view what are the main headlines for the pig sector so far when it comes to its journey of antibiotic stewardship over the past 5-10 years?”

Grace: “The main headlines for me are how the industry has voluntarily achieved a 69% reduction in antibiotic use since 2015, and taking the use of the critically important antibiotics to negligible levels. 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 the requirements within the assurance schemes – Red Tractor (RT) and Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) – has emphasised the importance of antibiotic stewardship to the industry. The co-operation and data gathering of farmers has been impressive to say the least.”

RUMA: “How important are the RUMA Targets Task Force (TTF) Targets?”

Grace: “For the pig industry the RUMA TTF is the focal point for a huge amount of collaboration between the Pig Veterinary Society (PVS), pig producers, the National Pig Association, the AHDB eMedicine Book (eMB) team all of which come together under the Pig Health and Welfare Council (PHWC) AMU sub-group to discuss how the sector can work together. Arriving at an actual figure was one of the most challenging tasks to be honest, whilst also creating a range of general ambitions which also formed part of our approach and framework. The actual RUMA TTF figure is what the industry is judged on and finding that balance between feasibility as well as challenging the sector to drive responsible and sustainable reductions is the goal.

“Undoubtedly, at the start of TTF there were a great number of challenges facing the pig sector. Like other sectors we wanted to achieve safe reductions and address any unnecessary use and work collaboratively across the sector to find solutions. What has been impressive is the leadership, accountability and ownership that the sector has taken to drive reductions. The communication to the industry, particularly via AHDB has been key to success and there has also been communication through the National Pig Association (NPA) both centrally and via its regional meetings at the start of this journey back in 2016 when the first set of RUMA Targets were being developed; all of this was instrumental in raising the profile across the industry. There was also a huge amount of support from AHDB when the eMB-Pigs was first introduced, helping to get farmers used to the system and obtain their buy in. The experiences shared through the RUMA TTF were also helpful in motivating and shaping our strategy, as all sectors were at very different stages of the antibiotic stewardship process. For some sectors, there were infrastructures already in place which made the setting of Targets easier than in others.

“As the industry made progress and was successful against its Targets, this naturally helped drive even more enthusiasm and support. People wanted to be part of that success and didn’t want to let the rest of the industry down – success kept breeding more motivation creating a virtuous circle.”

RUMA: “Can you share the sector’s data collection journey with specific reference to eMB-Pigs?”

Grace: “Back in 2015, AHDB and the VMD had created the eMB-Pigs platform for gathering pig industry antibiotic use data. There were already pockets of data in existence and that did not go to waste because instead of waiting a year to build a picture, there was a huge effort by the industry to collect a year’s data retrospectively – no mean feat! We managed to collect around 60% of the data which is very impressive and demonstrates that the pig sector was already focused on the importance of data – we just didn’t have the central system in place until eMB-Pigs was established.

“This retrospective data picture was enlightening and gave us a solid and reassuring base from which to set our targets with a good degree of confidence. Without this, the targets would have lacked evidence based foundations which are so important. Like any new process and priority, there are always challenges to overcome but there is an appetite to embrace change and overcome obstacles right across the sector that has driven significant achievements as evidenced by the reductions to date that have been realised.

“We knew as a sector there was a need to improve the speed and accuracy of data collection, and create a process for those producers whose usage is considered high on a regular basis so that there is a framework in place to support them. These challenges have been responded to through the PHWC AMU Sub-Group involving cross industry representation. Farmers are generally concerned about where data about their business goes and who sees it, but the eMB has demonstrated it is their data and they have control of it. So, if they want to share it with their vet they can, but they have ultimate control. As far as how it’s used beyond that, their data feeds into the national AMU figure, but that is anonymised. Farmers can however also use the AMU benchmark tool in the eMB to help see how they are performing against similar pig enterprises, which represents another way of the producer making positive use of their data.”

RUMA: “Do you think that the early adoption by Red Tractor (RT) and Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) for pig antibiotic use data to be recorded as a requirement of farm assurance, had a positive impact on the collection of data?”

Grace: “Undoubtedly. The decision to include eMB-Pigs data recording as part of Farm Assurance Schemes has been very important in the success of collecting data quickly, and maintains that focus and awareness on usage figures.”

RUMA: “Do you think the more recent next step of identifying the Persistently High Users (PHU’s) and subsequent requirement to have an antibiotic reduction plan for those in the top 5% is having a positive impact on these high-end users? Would you recommend this tactic to other sectors, where the data was reliably available to identify the high users?”

Grace: “Once we had established the system of collection and benchmarking , it became clear some producers may need further help and support to reduce usage. I think we are still at an early stage with this process, but it does create further focus for those identified PHU’s. It is a good process and means resource and effort can be directed effectively to where it is going to make the most difference. High use can sometimes be necessary, – responsible use at the right time and in the right situations – but where this is persistent, there is often help needed to address some underlying issues in that unit. The Pig Health and Welfare Council (PHWC) continue to scrutinise all data. It is to be expected that certain categories of antibiotics will show increases in some years as disease patterns vary. This is responsible use. By monitoring these changes, focus can be applied to disease areas where any increases cause concern, but if this is habitual then we felt this had to be challenged which is where the focus on PHU’s comes in.”

RUMA: “Do you have any context of what is happening in other pig industries around the world? Is the UK leading the way?”

Grace: “I believe our data collection system is probably at the forefront of benchmarking and robustness. The way producers have accepted and voluntarily supported this process is pretty unique. There are a huge range of approaches in the EU towards collating data and reducing usage, with Northern Europe being at the forefront. The rest of the world is some way behind in tackling this issue.”

RUMA: “The most recent figures from the eMB show that the amount of antibiotic used to treat pigs on UK farms in 2021 stood at 87mg/PCU, compared with 105mg/PCU in 2020 which is a 17% reduction. This brings the total reduction since 2015 to 69%. How much lower can the sector go? Can it reach its 2024 target of 75mg/PCU?”

Grace: “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 oxide removal. We are hopeful of reaching the 2024 target, but are realistic that this is not going to be easy and will require a continued huge effort and focus.

“It’s also important to note that as reported in the last RUMA Targets Task Force Report released in November 2022, use of the Highest Priority Critically Important Antibiotics (HP-CIAs) remained very low at 0.03mg/ PCU (a reduction from 0.05mg/PCU in 2020), with zero use of colistin; again really great achievements for the sector.”

RUMA: “Do you feel the ban on zinc oxide use then will have a big impact on the pig sectors progress to the 75Mg/PCU?

Grace: “Yes, I do believe this will create some challenges on some farms, and may have an impact on achieving the 75mg/PCU target but the sector is working hard to overcome these challenges.”

RUMA: “In the most recent RUMA TTF Report it was clear to see that the past 12-24 months have been challenging for the sector (poor returns, disruption to the slaughter supply chain, increased feed prices) yet despite all that, there has still been a 17% YOY reduction. How has that been achieved considering the many challenges?

Grace: “I think the vaccination policies in place on farm have played a large part and have enabled this reduction to happen. But it a lot comes down to the continued focus and energy right across the sector – there is great resilience and pride so even in the face of challenges, the target has still been very much in focus.”

RUMA: “How important is the vet/farmer relationship especially with regards to antibiotic use?”

Grace: “The vet/farmer relationship has been the key to the progress made so far , and will be crucial in reaching the next targets.”

RUMA: “What’s next for the pig sector in terms of ongoing/future innovations for the responsible use of medicines?”

Grace: “Innovations in health management continue within the pig sector with many new technologies such as water based vaccinations, feed additives, rapid pen-side diagnostics, and the possibility of novel genetic techniques in the future. There is also an ongoing need to invest in new infrastructure and buildings. For example, updating units, which is a considerable investment, and many producers are looking at specific areas of ongoing improvement such as ventilation and water / feed provision. ”

RUMA: “What can other sectors learn from the pig sector?”

Grace: “Communicating with the industry was one of the key components in getting the message across that this was an issue that we all had to play our part in. To this day, communications remains a fundamental focus as we know that with the right messages and communications tools we can effect positive change and drive the outcomes we need to.

“This is a collaborative effort across vets and producers and by driving change together through a voluntary approach, rather than through legislation, the achievements have been significant and I think that speaks volumes. I do think the carrot and stick approach of benchmarking has been a powerful tool that has motivated change in many vets and producers though. Finally, bringing together experts , in our case the AHDB AMU Sub-Group of representative people, has played and continues to play an important role in moving forward and provides a forum for debating appropriate issues and formulating new strategies and ideas.”

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