Government’s antibiotic strategy will not stop excessive farm use of antibiotics

10 September 2013

In a new report setting out the Government’s five-year strategy for dealing with the rise of antibiotic resistance [1], the Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies and the Chief Veterinary Officer, Nigel Gibbens warn that ‘the rapid spread of multi-drug resistant bacteria means we could be close to a point where we may not be able to prevent or treat everyday infections or diseases’. They say that ‘the harsh reality is that infections are increasingly developing that cannot be treated’ and blame the ‘inappropriate use of these valuable medicines’ and the fact that ‘the development pipeline for new antibiotics is at an all-time low’. 

The Soil Association, which has long campaigned for antibiotics to be used more sparingly, welcomes the report but is disappointed by the lack of specific recommendations for reducing antimicrobial use in farming. The Soil Association is concerned that the Government’s strategy for controlling resistance contains only general advice that farmers and vets should use antimicrobials responsibly, but is leaving it to the industry to decide what is, and what is not, responsible.

Evidence reviewed by the Soil Association indicates the farm use of antibiotics plays a significant role in the development of resistance in certain human infections [2], especially those which cause food-poisoning, such as campylobacter and salmonella, and the type of E. coli bacteria responsible for an estimated one million urinary-tract and 39,000 life-threatening blood-poisoning infections every year [2].

Soil Association policy advisor, Richard Young, said; “There is a wealth of evidence showing antibiotic resistance can and does pass to humans from animals through the food chain and the environment. Some individual vets and some farmers are doing outstanding work in reducing the use of antimicrobials, but we need an effective national strategy. In relation to farm antibiotic use the Government’s overall approach is weak and ineffectual.

“As it stands, the strategy will be grossly inadequate to address the huge scale of the farming problem. In our view antimicrobials should no longer be given to healthy farm animals as a cheap insurance against the possibility of disease. The strategy also contains no proposals for new legislation to ensure that farm animals are kept in healthier, less intensive conditions, even though it is clear this reduces ill health and the need for antimicrobials.”

The Government report acknowledges that ‘use of antibiotics in animals is an important factor in contributing to the wider pool of resistance’. The importance of education, hygiene, surveillance of resistance and of antibiotic use are all emphasised, but there are no goals set for reducing overall antibiotic use or the use of the critically important antibiotics. No commitments are made to collect antibiotic-usage data by animal species, resistance data on farm-animal E. coli, or to review the widespread practice of using antibiotics routinely in the feed and water of healthy animals – all recommendations which have previously been made by independent UK advisory committees [3].

A report published last year by Defra and Department of Health scientific advisors said that animals kept at high stocking densities were at increased risk of developing infections, while those kept extensively were least at risk [4].

Many European countries have already introduced policies which go significantly further than the UK towards reducing farm antibiotic use. The Netherlands reduced farm antibiotic use by over 50% between 2009 and 2012 and has banned routine preventative use. The Dutch have also placed new restrictions on the use of critically important antibiotics [5]. In Denmark, routine use is also prohibited, 97% of poultry no longer receive any medically important antibiotics and there is now a ‘yellow-card’ scheme which cautions farmers using too many antibiotics [6]. The French government has announced an action plan which aims to reduce farm antibiotic use by 25% in five years [7].

In the UK, in contrast, the only progress has been initiated by the industry. The poultry industry, for example, has committed to voluntarily restricting its use of some critically important antibiotics, but the Government seems reluctant to introduce legislation which would enforce this change or to extend it to other species.

The Soil Association is a member of the Save Our Antibiotics Alliance. The use of antibiotics is restricted to the treatment of ill health in organic farming, but the Soil Association also runs workshops on organic farm to help non-organic farmers develop approaches to animal husbandry which result in lower antimicrobial usage [9].


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Notes to Editors
[1] The report, entitled ‘UK Five Year Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy 2013-2018’ is published by Defra and the Department for Health.
[2] Farm antibiotic use also plays a small role in some other infections such as MRSA and VRE. In many types of infection in humans, however, such as tuberculosis and ear infections in young children, there is no link to the farm use of antimicrobials at all.
[3] See and
For some other infections such as MRSA, there is evidence that the overuse of antibiotics is currently only a small contributor to human infections, but it appears to be an growing one and action is needed to ensure this does not increase.
[4] The Government’s official position is that it does not support the routine preventative use of antibiotics in farming, but there are indications that Defra and the Department of Health do not see eye to eye on this. The Strategy report talks about ‘facilitating development of sector specific prescribing guidelines, which, for example advocate minimising the routine use of preventative antibiotics in animal health’ but there are no proposals for actually stopping routine preventative use.
[5] See p. 64 of DARC and ARHAI, 2012. ESBLs – A threat to human and animal health?
The report states, ‘In general, for animals, the risks of acquiring bacterial infections also tend to be highest in those individuals that are ill and/or under antimicrobial treatment, followed by those kept in higher stocking density and/or mixed with other animals on a regular basis and lowest for animal kept singly or extensively.’
[6] Letter from Dutch Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Brushcke, to Compassion in World Farming, January 2013
[7] Danish Approach to Antibiotic Prescribing, Veterinary Record, 2013,
[8] Ministère de l'agriculture, de l'agroalimentaire et de la forêt, 2012. National action plan for the reduction of the risks of antibiotic resistance in veterinary medicine,
[9] The Save Our Antibiotics Alliance was founded by the Soil Association, Compassion in World Farming and Sustain. It currently has 17 members.


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