Soil Association comment on the Parliamentary debate on public health and the use of antibiotics on intensive farms
10 January 2013
The Soil Association welcomes the points made by Zac Goldsmith MP in a Parliamentary debate on public health and the use of antibiotics in intensive farms yesterday (9 January). We feel it is vitally important that renewed efforts are made to reduce the overall use of antibiotics in agriculture, and that the use of the most medically important antibiotics be cut to an absolute minimum.
This is the first time Parliament has taken an interest in the farm use of antibiotics and the associated problems caused by antibiotic resistance since a report was published by the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology on Antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents in 1998, when Lord Soulsby the Chair of the committee warned of ‘a return to the pre-antibiotic era’.
Quoting from a brief prepared by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, the Health Minister Anna Soubry stated, ‘There is no conclusive scientific evidence that food-producing animals form a reservoir of infection in the United Kingdom’ and that, ‘Food is not considered to be a major source of infections resistant to antibiotics.’
In response Soil Association Policy Adviser Richard Young said; “The Government is factually incorrect and morally irresponsible to claim the evidence is inconclusive and then use this as an excuse for inaction. There is an international scientific consensus that farm animals form a major reservoir of antibiotic resistance in food poisoning bacteria and there is now overwhelming evidence that they also contribute significantly to a number of other serious resistant infections in humans, particularly those caused by non-food poisoning forms of E. coli.
“Resistance also does not just pass between animals and humans on disease causing bacteria on food, it also passes on harmless bacteria which later transfer resistance genes to infectious bacteria from other sources. This also occurs through environmental spread and direct contact with animals as well as via food.
“The Minister quoted the Veterinary Medicines Directorate’s work on monitoring antibiotic residues, which we accept is of a high standard and important, but she failed to mention the UK does not routinely monitor antibiotic resistance in E. coli, enterococci or Staphylococcus aureus on farm animals.
“There is a serious lack of democratic accountability in the Government’s approach to farm antibiotic-resistance issues and the threat these pose to human health. It now takes its sole advice from the Veterinary Medicines Directorate which is largely funded by the pharmaceutical and intensive-livestock industries, and institutionally tuned to their commercial needs.”
The Soil Association feels there is an urgent need for more detailed Parliamentary scrutiny on this issue since there have been significant developments over the last decade including:
- the rise of new highly resistant strains of E. coli in food animals which are contributing to serious resistance problems in human medicine
- the emergence and spread of new strains of MRSA which affect both animals and humans
- the rise of a new epidemic strain of multi-drug resistant salmonella in pigs
- major increases in the level of fluoroquinolone resistance.
Antibiotic growth promoters have also been banned during this period but the overall use of antibiotics per animal has remained largely unaltered. Alarmingly however, there have been significant increases in the use of antibiotics classified by the World Health Organisation as ‘critically important in human medicine’. The Soil Association’s analysis is that most of this increase has been for commercial, not clinical reasons.
The Soil Association is a member of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, a joint initiative with Sustain and Compassion in World Farming.