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Farmers over-reliance on antibiotics affects resistance, says UK organic group

By Jane Byrne , 14-Aug-2008
Last updated on 20-Aug-2008 at 17:25 GMT

UK farmers and veterinary surgeons are giving antibiotics to animals often to prevent rather than treat disease, which is contributing to the problem of antibiotic resistance through food, claims a UK organic group.

Antimicrobials are chemicals such as antibiotics used in veterinary and human medicine.

Resistance to antibacterials in animals is rising, meaning that the risk of animal-based food becoming contaminated is higher. At the same time, antimicrobials are also becoming less effective in fighting human infections.

The Soil Association claims that an over-reliance on antibiotics in farming is resulting from the need to to control potential disease problems in crowded environments:

“Unfortunately, the congestion problems associated with intensive rearing of animals means that the conditions are ripe for the spread of bacteria among the livestock,” said organic farmer and policy adviser to the Soil Association Richard Young.

He claims that organic systems are designed with the objective of reducing the potential for disease but where antibiotics are used in UK organic farming to treat sick animals there is a long withdrawal period before the meat can be sold for consumption.

Cost pressures

Young told FoodProductionDaily.com that a growing pressure on intensive farmers, chicken producers in particular, to meet consumer and retailer expectation on rock bottom prices is reducing their margins and encouraging the use of drugs so that they can meet delivery times.

"The routine use of low-level antibiotics over a prolonged period in animals rather than a short, sharp one-off treatment is encouraging resistance in livestock,” said Young.

Human medicine

However, Young admits that the widespread prescription of antibiotics by doctors, often unnecessarily in the case of minor ailments, coupled with the fact that patients do not often finish the course, is also causing resistance problems in humans.

But he claims that while doctors are coming under increased pressure to prescribe antibiotics more sparingly to patients, the same pressure is not being applied to farmers.

“No one wants to stop farmers using antibiotics when they are genuinely needed. However, there are a number of very serious problems now developing and the evidence increasingly suggests that food is part of the problem,” argues Young.

Review sought

He is calling for an urgent review of the overall situation followed by clear recommendations to ensure the situation does not reach crisis point.

Young said that consumers should have access to more information, either through pack labelling or other schemes, about the level of antibiotic usage and welfare standards applied in relation to meat products so that price is not the only factor informing their purchase choices.

Regulatory view

The European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) panel on biological hazards (BIOHAZ) claims that more needs to be done to ensure that the food we eat does not become a ‘carrier’ for antimicrobial resistant agents which could leave the body open to health risks.

The regulator adopted a redrafted opinion last week which claims that the growing use of antimicrobial agents in food could be damaging human resistance to bacteria.

Alun Jones, senior spokesman for EFSA, told FoodProductionDaily.com that there is a need to keep a close eye on this issue to ensure all potential entry points into the food chain for such resistant bacteria are controlled.

The agency is calling on all stakeholders, including the national food safety authorities, to apply effective risk management in this area.

The Biohaz panel said that controls operated at the pre-harvest phase and those aimed at limiting antimicrobial usage are potentially the most effective and as such are capable of playing a major role in reducing the occurrence of AMR bacteria in food.

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