Government must act to reduce farm antibiotic use

11 March 2013

The Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics welcomes the Chief Medical Officer’s warning of the dire threat posed by rising levels of antibiotic resistance [1]. But, in a new report published today, ‘Antibiotic resistance – the impact of intensive farming on human health’, the Alliance shows that the Government is still not facing up to the problems caused by the excessive use of antibiotics on farms [2]. These are serious problems that call for both changes in the law, and help for farmers to move to higher-welfare systems less dependent on antibiotics.

On many intensive livestock farms, antibiotics continue to be used routinely for disease prevention or for the treatment of avoidable outbreaks. But the Government claims there is no conclusive evidence that farm antibiotic use contributes to resistance in human infections.

The Alliance report shows that this is incorrect. Drawing on assessments by the World Health Organization and the European Food Safety Authority, the report shows that for some human infections, such as salmonella and campylobacter, farm antibiotic use is the principal cause of resistance. For others, like E. coli (that cause urinary-tract and blood-poisoning infections), and enterococci (that cause wound and kidney infections), it contributes significantly to human treatment problems.

The increasing farm use of two classes of antibiotics, the modern cephalosporins and fluoroquinolones, which are classified by the World Health Organization as ‘critically important in human medicine’, is another major concern. This has led to the emergence of the highly resistant ESBL E. coli on many farms, and is also driving the spread of livestock-associated MRSA.

Livestock-associated MRSA is an emerging problem which currently only causes small numbers of human infections in the UK, but based on experiences in other countries has the potential to become a far greater problem unless the farm use of antibiotics is reduced very quickly.

Richard Young, Soil Association Policy Adviser, said:
”The overuse of antibiotics in human medicine is a major problem which has to be addressed. But this must not blind us to the fact that the high use of antibiotics in intensive livestock farming is already causing treatment failures in human infections, and the situation will only get worse if nothing is done. We need a complete change of attitude within Defra and the livestock industry. Antibiotics should only be used when animals become ill and not given to large groups of healthy animals as a cheap insurance policy.”

Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden have programmes which have significantly reduced farm antibiotic use, and Germany, France and Belgium will soon join them. In contrast, British Government advisers have cautioned against action to reduce antibiotic use significantly, as they believe this would increase production costs [3]. The Alliance is calling on the UK Government to recognise the strength of the scientific evidence and take meaningful action, strengthening the law and helping farmers meet the challenge of developing viable higher-welfare systems that depend less on antibiotics.

The Alliance is calling for:

  • a legally binding timetable for the phased ending of all routine preventative, non-therapeutic use of antibiotics
  • a ban on the use of modern cephalosporins in poultry, pigs and for dry-cow therapy in cattle. Off-label use of these antibiotics should also be banned
  • a ban on the use of fluoroquinolones in poultry
  • new legislation aimed at ensuring that farm animals are kept in healthier, less intensive conditions, wherever possible with access to the outdoors
  • support for farmers to shift to higher-welfare systems that depend less on antibiotic use, by using money budgeted under the Common Agricultural Policy to back investment, spread best practice and fund the most relevant research
  • improved surveillance of antibiotic use and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in farm animals.

For press enquiries contact the Soil Association press office:
Holly Black, Digital Communications and Press Officer: 0117 914 5170 :


  1. The Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics was formed by Compassion in World Farming, the Soil Association and Sustain to raise awareness about the growing threat of antibiotic resistance passing from food animals to humans.
  2. Antibiotic resistance – the impact of intensive farming on human health, A report by the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics,
  3. A report published last year by Defra and Department of Health scientific advisers and officials argued against taking significant measures at an EU level for reducing antibiotic use, saying this could put EU farmers at a commercial disadvantage leading to more imports. They warned that costs might increase because, they claimed, fewer animals might survive, but also because livestock would ‘have to be kept more extensively or in better buildings to minimise risks of becoming infected, such as avoiding pneumonia by building better designed, well-ventilated buildings’. The report said that ‘Unless consumers are prepared to pay a premium for food produced by means designed to lower the risk of transmitting antimicrobial resistance (while not compromising animal welfare) the potential for unintended consequences of certain measures that may be used to control antimicrobial resistance is high’. See




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