56.The widespread use of antibiotics in animals is of concern because it is likely to lead to accelerated development of AMR, leading to welfare issues for farm animals and commercial issues for farmers. This also contributes to the development and spread of AMR in human pathogens. In 2016, agriculture accounted for 33% of total UK antibiotic sales, and companion animals accounted for 8%. We heard that good progress has been made in reducing antibiotic use in agriculture. Total UK antibiotic use in agricultural animals dropped by 27% between 2014 and 2016, to 45 mg of antibiotic per kg of livestock (mg/kg), exceeding the Government target of 50mg/kg by 2018. In comparison UK human antibiotic use was 129 mg/kg in 2014.
57.Antimicrobial medicines are used differently in animals than in humans. For humans they will be used to treat or prevent infection in an individual. In the past, antibiotics were routinely added to animal feed as growth promoters–this practice was banned in the EU in 2006, although it persists in many other non-EU countries. Antibiotics are also used for routine prophylaxis and for metaphylaxis. However, all meat, eggs and milk sold in the EU have to pass tests to ensure that any antibiotic residues left from previous treatment are at levels that are considered safe for human consumption, and below a concentration that inhibits bacteria.
58.Our written evidence expressed persisting concerns about the prophylactic use of antibiotics in animals, and also about the use of antibiotics of critical importance–antibiotics that are defined by the European Medicines Agency as vital in maintaining human health, including fluoroquinolones, 3rd and 4th generation cephalosporins and colistin. Some called for a ban on both of these practices. Witnesses from DEFRA argued that a ban was not necessary, as substantial reductions in both of these practices had already been achieved. Total sales of critically important antibiotics in agriculture have fallen to 1.5% of sales. Moreover, Christine Middlemiss, the Chief Veterinary Officer, told us that new EU medicines regulations would tighten practices significantly. She told us that this EU legislation will be mirrored in domestic legislation, with these specific provisions included.
59.We heard that new trade agreements post-Brexit had the potential to introduce meat and dairy products to the UK market from parts of the world which are not subject to the same level of controls on antibiotic use as the UK and the EU. Government officials and ministers told us that the Secretary of State for DEFRA was clearly and strongly opposed to any reduction in food standards as a result of Brexit. We welcome this assurance.
60.Witnesses from DEFRA and RUMA argued that UK consumers themselves would object to a lowering of standards and would reflect this in their purchasing choices, should products from other countries become available. Our witnesses argued that current assurance marks used in the UK such as the Red Tractor assurance scheme could play a key role in helping consumers choose products from farms which adhered to the UK’s stringent standards in this area. However, we are not convinced that this is the case, as for many people price will be the driving factor; equally, labelling may not be obvious, and may not apply in all sectors, including the take-out sector. We discussed the possibility of changing labelling to inform consumers about antibiotic use standards, and we were told that labelling products as ‘antibiotic-free’ was in fact misleading as it does not mean that the animal involved had not received antibiotics during the course of its life.
61.Progress has been made in reducing the use of antibiotics in animals. DEFRA must ensure that this progress is embedded and in some areas extended, including keeping targets under close review. Serious concerns remain about the prophylactic or metaphylactic use of antibiotics in animals, and the use of antibiotics of last resort that may as a result lose their effectiveness for humans more quickly. It is essential that tight controls on these practices are introduced and maintained following the UK’s departure from the EU.
62.We have heard concerns that when the UK leaves the EU, imported meat and dairy produce will enter the UK market which has not been produced to the stringent standards relating to antibiotic use which currently apply to meat and dairy products produced in the EU. We were told that assurance schemes such as the ‘Red Tractor’ scheme would provide assurance to UK consumers, but we are unconvinced that the absence of such an assurance mark will provide sufficient information and protection to UK consumers.
63.We welcome the Secretary of State’s clear and strong opposition to any reduction in food standards as a result of Brexit. However, we do not regard those assurances as sufficient to guarantee that UK consumers will continue to be able to choose meat and dairy products which have been produced responsibly and in a way which will not undermine efforts to tackle AMR. We invite the Government to make a clear commitment that any future trade deals will require any meat and dairy produce imported into the UK to meet at least the same standards relating to antibiotic use which apply to meat and dairy products produced in the EU.
58 , Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, October 2018
59 The practice of giving antimicrobials to a group of livestock to prevent illness occurring, even when there is no illness currently present.
60 The practice of giving antimicrobials to a group of livestock to prevent the further spread of an illness, once an illness has been detected in an individual animal.
61 , Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, October 2018
Published: 22 October 2018