Antibiotic resistance is a major concern, as it is well understood that excess use can reduce effectiveness. Around 30,000 people in the UK alone are estimated to have an enhanced type of antibiotic resistance known as extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL); increasing resistance means there is less likelihood of infections in humans being successfully treated in the future.
The bug, discovered in cows at an unidentified farm, is a vera-toxin known as E.coli O26 which produces E.coli (VTEC). Nineteen out of 20 calves and three out of 40 cows were found by government vets to be positive. This is the first time that VTEC E.coli has been found with ESBL in the UK, and only the third time in the world.
According to the Soil Association, which is calling for limit to be imposed on the veterinary-use of modern penicillin-type antibiotics, the farmer has been given hygiene advice to protect his family, but no restrictions have been placed on animals from the affected herd.
This means that they can be sold locally to unsuspecting farmers and for export “so the Soil Association fears that the hyper-resistant strain will spread more widely”.
Soil Association policy advisor Richard Young called the incident “one of the most worrying developments in the continuing rise of ESBL E.coli”.
He added that there is a lack of awareness that continued high use of antibiotics in farming is contributing to increasing antibiotic resistance in humans.
“The government often calls on doctors to prescribe antibiotics less often. But similar advice needs to be given to veterinary surgeons and farmers”.
The organic association is also campaigning for restrictions of modern cephalosporins – a class of antibiotics – on all farms, both conventional and organic.
As of January 2009, it is restricting cephalosporin use on the organic farms it certifies in a bid to prevent the spread of ESBLs, in addition to other kinds of antibiotics that are already limited.