Antibiotics have revolutionised modern medicine and saved millions of lives. But most antibiotics are not used to save life. In human medicine we use them too often for minor ailments. And nearly 50% of all antibiotics are used in farming, primarily in intensive livestock production to compensate for crowded and unnatural conditions on factory farms.
Most pigs, poultry and dairy cows receive antibiotics routinely, whether or not they are unwell, with some European pigs spending an average of 20% of their lives on antibiotics. Over the last decade entirely new E.coli and MRSA superbugs have become major problems on European farms due to the overuse of antibiotics. The world's public health experts are agreed that resistant bacteria are created in food animals by antibiotic use and that these resistant bacteria are being transmitted to people. This then makes it more difficult for doctors to treat affected patients, with potentially fatal delays in identifying an effective antibiotic when needed. The situation is so acute that the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Dr Margaret Chan, warned in 2011 of a "post-antibiotic era, in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and, once again, kill unabated.'
What the Soil Association is calling for now
This is an urgent issue for public health, and one which the Soil Association has been researching and campaigning on for many years. We have also joined with Compassion in World Farming and Sustain to form the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics. We want to see the following urgent action on antibiotic use:
- Significant upgrading of the UK’s regulatory system for farm antibiotics to address the issue of antimicrobial resistance.
- The phasing out of routine preventative antibiotic use on farms
- The overall use of antibiotics on farms should be halved within five years
- A ban on advertising antibiotics to farmers
- The use of fluoroquinolones and 3rd and 4th generation cephalosporins should be greatly reduced and their off-label use prohibited
- Action to prevent calves drinking milk containing residues of modern cephalosporin antibiotics, to prevent the rapid spread ofESBL E.coli on farms.
- Safety data on drugs to be made publicly available
- Risks to be assessed in a more precautionary way when drugs are approved
- Withdrawal periods after drug use to be extended, in line with organic standards
- Testing should be undertaken to establish the levels of ESBL bacteria on food
- Proper surveillance of antibiotic usage and antibiotic resistance in farm animals
- Support and resources for organic farming methods, and recongition that higher welfare, less intensive farming systems can reduce the need for antibiotics in agriculture significantly
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