E. coli superbugs warning
29 March 2012
In a report published today, the Soil Association warns there is now overwhelming evidence that the excessive use of antibiotics on UK livestock farms is contributing to the rise of drug resistance in human E. coli infections. 
The report, ‘E. coli superbugs on farms and food’, reveals the extent of Britain’s E. coli epidemic. The Soil Association estimates that 750,000–1,500,000 people in the UK contracted an E. coli infection in 2011, resulting in nearly 40,000 cases of blood poisoning and nearly 8,000 deaths. Cases of E. coli blood poisoning have increased nearly fourfold in the last 20 years.
E. coli’s resistance to key antibiotics has risen sharply in the past decade, and the Health Protection Agency say the prospect of new antibiotics to treat E. coli is poor. Scientists increasingly view farm antibiotic use as a significant contributor to the problem. A major review of the evidence in Europe recently concluded that, 'In addition to the contribution of antimicrobial usage in people, a large proportion of resistant E. coli isolates causing blood stream infections in people are likely derived from food animal sources'. 
A new type of extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL) E. coli is of particular concern. It is described by Government scientists as “extremely resistant” to many classes of antibiotics and “more virulent” than other forms of E. coli. Patients with ESBL E. coli blood poisoning are nearly three times as likely to die as other affected patients.
The prevalence of ESBL E. coli on British farms has increased dramatically since it was first identified in 2004.  This is almost certainly due to high levels of antibiotic use on farms. The Soil Association has calculated that the farm use of antibiotics per animal was at its highest-ever level in 2010, 18% higher than in 2000, while the use of modern cephalosporin antibiotics, which most strongly encourage ESBL E. coli, has increased over six-fold despite falls in livestock numbers. 
Professor Peter Collignon, Director of the Infectious Diseases Unit and Microbiology Department at Canberra Hospital, Australia, who wrote the Foreword of the report said:
“It is very important that we stop multi-resistant bacteria developing in food animals to prevent their spread to people. To do that we need to address the issue of inappropriate use of antibiotics in farming, just as much as in the health profession”.
Dr Dai Grove-White from the School of Veterinary Science, Liverpool University, in a statement of support said:
“It is essential that all the relevant stakeholders namely governments, farmers, veterinary surgeons, retailers and consumers participate in this debate to ensure the protection of both human and animal health and allow farming to rise to the inevitable challenges of the next 50 years without jeopardising human health.”
Dr Ron Daniels from the United Kingdom Sepsis Trust, in a statement of support, said: “It is now certain that agricultural, veterinary and food industry use of antibiotics – which represents one half of all antibiotic use in the U.K – impacts on antibiotic resistance in animals which in turn impacts on antibiotic resistance in humans. Antibiotic resistance is developing faster than we can develop new antibiotics – if we don’t act now, we will rapidly arrive at a situation where we are unable to treat some bacterial infections.”
Richard Young, Soil Association policy advisor and co-author of the report, said:
“Just about every non-organic chicken in the UK is still routinely put on antibiotics from the day it is hatched. The UK does not have an effective strategy for addressing the rising levels of antibiotic resistance on farms and food, and is the only EU country still allowing antibiotics to be advertised to farmers.”
The Soil Association’s key recommendations include:
- Phasing out the preventative use of antibiotics in healthy animals and halving the overall use of antibiotics on farms within five years.
- Moving towards higher welfare and less intensive production systems which have the potential to reduce the use of antibiotics in farming significantly. 
- Greatly reduce the use of modern cephalosporins and fluoroquinolones and prohibit off-label use.
- Prohibit the advertising of antibiotics to farmers in the UK and any advertisement to veterinary surgeons should be purely factual and not emotive in any way.
For press enquiries, the full report, and to request interviews with the scientists supporting the report please contact the Soil Association press office:
Clio Turton, press office manager - 0117 914 2448 / 07795 562 556
Josh Stride, press & e-communications officer – 0117 314 5170 / 07717 802 183
Notes to editor:
 Download the report on the Soil Association website from 29 March: ‘E. coli superbugs on farms and food’
 Vieira et al 2011. Association Between Antimicrobial Resistance in Escherichia coli Isolates from Food Animals and Blood Stream Isolates from Humans in Europe: An Ecological Study, Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, 8: 1295-301
 Last year, ESBL E. coli was found in 52% of poultry abattoirs, on 37% of dairy farms and in 87% of pigs from seven farms. Despite this, there has been no testing of British-produced meat since one small study in 2006, when ESBL levels in farm animals were much lower.
Two UK studies have found high levels of ESBL E. coli on imported chicken (30-33%). Testing of meat in other European countries has typically found between 35% and 100% of chicken, up to 25% of pork, up to 8% of beef, and half of all turkey and rabbit to be positive for ESBL E. coli. 84% of Dutch organic chicken was also positive for ESBL E. coli - Soil Association certified organic chicken is unlikely to be similarly affected due to certain requirements in our organic standards, as explained in the report.
 Accurate statistics on farm antibiotic use are only available from 1998 onwards.
 Research by Defra has shown that antibiotic use on UK organic pig and poultry farms is extremely low compared with non-organic farms, resulting in very much lower levels of resistance in E. coli.
 The Soil Association is a member of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics along with Compassion in World Farming and Sustain. Read more about the Alliance here