Farming News - Antibiotic resistance discussed in Westminster

Antibiotic resistance discussed in Westminster

On Wednesday, MPs discussed the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in Europe, and measures being undertaken to address the problem. Zac Goldsmith chaired the government debate; he claimed that agribusiness lobbyists have had an inordinate influence on government policy, meaning inadequate steps have been taken to address the problem of antibiotic resistance amongst farm animals.


Zac Goldsmith

The issue of resistance is a growing problem around the world. Cases of blood poisoning from E.Coli have increased by 400 percent in the last 20 years and no new antibiotics are currently in the development pipeline to treat certain important infections.


Mr Goldsmith said on Wednesday that government research suggests that most incidences of infection with antibiotic resistant bacteria in UK patients can be traced to inappropriate use of antibiotics in human medicine, however, he added "Antibiotics used in veterinary and human medicine are very closely related and there is a growing body of evidence to indicate that… inappropriate use of antibiotics on farms leads to the development of resistance amongst farm animals which can and does pass to humans."


The Conservative MP quoted former chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson, who said in 2009, "every inappropriate or unnecessary use [of antibiotics] on animals is potentially signing a death warrant for a future patient."


He lamented that, despite growing evidence of the problems posed by antibiotic resistance, little has been done to tackle the problem in agriculture. Mr Goldsmith said that, whilst the medical profession has seen a tightening of antibiotic prescriptions, "There has been virtually nothing from the government that could in any way encourage vets and farmers to be similarly prudent [with drug use in agriculture]."  

Goldsmith takes aim at intensive farming


Goldsmith, who is also an author and advocate of organic agriculture, specifically mentioned intensive farming as a source of resistance. His assertions are supported by data from the Washington DC based Worldwatch Institute, which revealed last year that a rise in intensive farming operations, in particular in emerging economies around the world, is increasing both pressure on finite antibiotics and the likelihood that growing resistance will lead to a serious threat to public health.


Pointing to Soil Association findings that show use of antibiotics in UK farming increased by 18 percent per animal between 2000 and 2010, Goldsmith warned that, contrary to industry claims, use of antibiotics in farming is increasing; sales of one type of drug, fluoroquinolones, have risen by 70 percent since 2000.


Mr Goldsmith was challenged in his assertions by health minister Anna Soubry, who claimed that there is no conclusive evidence that farm animals are a significant source of human infection with resistant bacteria. However, Goldsmith countered that Cambridge University researchers recently discovered a new form of multi-drug resistant MRSA (ST398) in UK livestock. The bug is endemic in pigs in Europe and North America; it has also been discovered in poultry and cattle. The Cambridge researchers concluded that the resistant bug is "readily able to transfer to humans."


The United States, Denmark, Finland and Australia have all introduced tighter restrictions on antibiotics in farming, including bans on fluoroquinolones and cephalosporins. Danish figures show that, although national measures to reduce resistance appear to be working, reducing prevalence of resistant bacteria in the domestic meat supply, levels of resistant bacteria in imported meat remain high. The Danish authorities have complained to the European Commission that their national approach is being undermined by more lax measures followed throughout the rest of the bloc.


All countries with tighter regulations have shown a reduction of resistance in humans.   


Welcoming the debate, Green Party leader Caroline Lucas called for a "legally binding timetable for the phased ending of all prophylactic use of antimicrobials on animals." Goldsmith offered his support and went further, calling on the health minister to:

  • consider farm use of antibiotics and the link between this use and risks to human health;
  • Introduce better monitoring, including publishing surveillance data by antibiotic family and animal species, as has been pioneered in France;
  • Limit the use of critically important antibiotics, including a ban on fluoroquinolones;
  • Improve animal health and welfare by limiting overcrowding "and the worst excesses of factory farming", to avoid the prophylactic use of antibiotics.


Goldsmith said that information supplied to him in a briefing from the British Poultry Council before the debate "Simply isn't true." The BCP claimed there is no evidence that intensive farming contributes more to resistance and that the industry is "not aware" of evidence that resistant infections are increasing in the UK.


However, Goldsmith revealed that Defra research shows antibiotic resistance is ten times lower in organic poultry and pigs than in animals on conventional farms and added that, in the first half of last year, as many cases of E.Coli infection were discovered on poultry farms as in the whole of the previous year.  


Mr Goldsmith added "factory farming interests have wielded enormous influence on government policy for many years" and suggested that any progressive moves on antibiotic use in agriculture will be "fiercely resisted by them." He concluded "If we continue to ignore the risks for fear of upsetting vested interests, we will be complicit in robbing future generations of one of the greatest discoveries of our species."


Health Minister Ms Soubry promised to provide the MP for Richmond Park with answers to his questions, though acknowledged that she could not answer the majority of them immediately. She said she would ask Farming Minister David Heath to investigate whether curent regulations could be tightened.