Campaigners Warn of Loopholes in Laws to Curb Antibiotics on UK Farms After ‘Biased’ Industry Consultation

Pharmaceutical and veterinary medicine lobbies had privileged access to officials developing legislation to fight the emergence of fatal superbugs, DeSmog can reveal.
Clare Carlile headshot cropped
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Proposed laws to curb antibiotic use on UK farms drafted after closed-door meetings with industry contain loopholes that could undermine the fight against deadly drug resistant bacteria, campaigners have warned.

The government published the draft legislation, designed to replace European Union rules post-Brexit, following consultations with pharmaceutical, veterinary medicine and farming lobby groups, according to Freedom of Information requests filed by DeSmog. 

Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, a coalition of health, sustainable farming and civil society organisations, said it had written repeatedly to the government to request meetings on the legislation, but had not received a response.

“It’s clear the consultation was biased in favour of certain industry interests that have quite consistently opposed stronger regulations on antibiotic use,” said Cóilín Nunan, scientific adviser to the coalition.

Excessive use of farm antibiotics is a major driver of antibiotic resistance worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Without stronger policies to counter the emergence of new superbugs, the 700,000 annual deaths caused by antimicrobial resistance could reach 10 million by 2050 – more than currently die from cancer, according to a 2016 report.

The UK’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate held a series of workshops with representatives of the pharmaceutical, veterinary medicine industries, and other “regulatory partners” to discuss the proposed legislation from December 2021 to July 2022, according to the Freedom of Information requests. Civil society groups were not invited.  

A directorate spokesperson said the organisation and legislators “were and remain open to dialogue with all interested parties.”

“The purpose of these meetings was to discuss technical aspects and to inform our assessment of likely impacts of potential proposals for changes to the legislation,” the spokesperson said.

Further consultation sessions open to all stakeholders were held during a subsequent, public consultation that ran from February to March this year, the spokesperson added.

Antibiotics have been integral to a boom in global meat production, which grew by 45 percent between 2000 and 2020, contributing to agriculture’s ballooning greenhouse gas emissions. The drugs have allowed intensive farms to rear large numbers of animals indoors while avoiding disease outbreaks that would otherwise occur in crowded conditions, and industry associations worldwide have been wary of mandatory restrictions on their use. 

UK farmers have slashed antibiotic use by an estimated 55 percent since 2014 mostly due to voluntary measures, and the agricultural sector uses fewer antibiotics than in most countries, including in the EU. Nevertheless, UK farmers use significantly more than some Nordic peers. Rates of antibiotic use are 2.5 times higher than in Sweden; almost eight times higher than in Iceland, and more than ten times higher than in Norway, per kilo of animal farmed, according to EU data. 

Loopholes

Health and animal welfare groups have broadly welcomed measures in the draft legislation to stop farmers routinely giving animals antibiotics as a preventative measure – which the WHO sees as a risk factor for antimicrobial resistance.  

However, campaigners warn that clauses allowing the preventive use of antibiotics for whole groups of animals in “exceptional circumstances” represent a loophole that could allow the practice to continue.

“The proposed new laws contain significant and welcome improvements on the current rules,” said Nunan, of Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics. “But without further changes, the way the law has been written leaves open the possibility that the preventative use of antibiotics will continue routinely on some farms.”

In contrast to the UK, the EU has banned the preventive use of antibiotics, except to treat individual animals in exceptional cases.

Campaigners had hoped the UK would follow suit after the government said in 2019 that it would “implement the provisions” of the EU regulations, which were agreed before the UK left the bloc in January 2020, and came into effect last year.

The UK government has since weakened that commitment, however, saying only that it would implement “similar provisions.” In March, the government confirmed that it would not introduce a “full, blanket ban” on the practice of routinely giving antibiotics to healthy groups of animals. 

The Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA), a coalition of veterinary medicine, pharmaceutical and farming groups, which took part in the consultations, has argued against imposing blanket bans on the preventive use of antibiotics for groups of animals in the UK. 

“Compulsory controls are a blunt tool which wouldn’t take into account the complexities across each of the sectors,” Chris Lloyd, general secretary of RUMA, told DeSmog. “There is also a real danger that blanket bans would be to the detriment of animal health and welfare.”

Mark Spencer, the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, told a parliamentary debate in January that while the government’s proposal “bears similarities” to EU laws, they factored in the UK’s unique circumstances. 

“Our proposals also take into consideration that we already use significantly lower levels of antibiotics than most other European countries, and that we’ve already designed a culture of responsible use across the veterinary and livestock sectors,” Spencer said. 

Group Treatments

Advocates of tougher regulations are also concerned that the proposed UK laws are silent on the question of how far farmers should be allowed to administer antibiotics to large groups of animals if one individual falls ill. EU rules impose limits on this practice to prevent it from being used as a pretext for excessive preventative use.   

“If you have a chicken shed with 30,000 chickens, you’ll always find one that is ill,” Nunan said.

Cat McLaughlin, chief animal welfare advisor to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), a farm lobby group, downplayed such concerns, saying antibiotics were always prescribed by veterinarians. 

The Veterinary Medicines Directorate said the proposed legislation constituted “a significant increase in restriction and scrutiny” of group preventative use of antibiotics, and that additional guidance on interpretation would be provided once the laws were finalised.

Gaps in Data

Most animal farming sectors in the UK voluntarily provide some data on their use of antibiotics to the government. But campaigners want the new legislation to require mandatory reporting, including specific data on the extent of preventative use.  

The NFU and RUMA deny that antibiotics are routinely used preventatively on UK farms.

Campaigners dispute this, however, pointing to official data showing that 75 percent of farm antibiotics sold in the UK are used in feed or water – which can be used to administer drugs preventatively to large numbers of animals sharing feed and drinking troughs. Less than a quarter of drugs are sold in the form of injections, which are used to treat individual animals. 

Countries with the lowest antibiotic use overall administer far lower proportions of antibiotics via food and water than in the UK. For example, in Sweden, which uses less than half the farm antibiotics administered in the UK, the proportion of antibiotics given via feed or drinking troughs is less than 10 percent, while 75 percent of farm antibiotics are given by injection. 

“It’s clear that antibiotics are routinely being used preventatively on UK farms,” said Lindsay Duncan, of World Animal Protection. “This is never acceptable. We’re losing some of our last resort, lifeline medications.”

The draft UK legislation does not include any new data reporting requirements. The new EU regulations, by contrast, require member states to collect information about actual on-farm use of antibiotics. Countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands have begun collecting more accurate use of data by monitoring prescriptions.

Systemic Change

The draft law says that antibiotics cannot be used “to compensate for poor hygiene, inadequate animal husbandry, or poor farm management practices”. But the legislation does not define any of these terms – which campaigners say leaves significant room for interpretation. 

Nunan, of Alliance To Save Our Antibiotics, gave the example of tail docking – a practice used by the pig industry – the largest user of antibiotics among animal farming sectors in the UK. Tail docking involves cutting a pig’s tail short, and is used to prevent pigs reared indoors from biting one another’s tails due to lack of space and stress. The practice is allowed in the UK only in exceptional circumstances. 

The NFU says UK farms operate to some of the highest standards of animal health and welfare in the world. However, animal welfare organisations Animal Equality and Animal Law Foundation say that around 70 percent of pigs have their tails docked. 

In another example of the role antibiotics play in enabling intensive farming, piglets taken from their mothers early in order to reimpregnate the sow are often given the drugs to prevent illness or diarrhoea. The NFU says the industry is working to develop non-antibiotic methods to combat piglet illness due to early weaning, such as implants of faecal matter containing microbes from healthy pigs. But scientists suggest that antibiotic use could be cut simply by increasing the weaning age.

“We’re going to see a stagnation in the amount of antibiotic use that can be voluntarily reduced,” said Duncan, of World Animal Protection. “The farming system can’t change overnight. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be bringing in legislation that aspires to this kind of change.” 

Clare Carlile headshot cropped
Clare is a Researcher at DeSmog, focusing on the agribusiness sector. Prior to joining the organisation in July 2022, she was Co-Editor and Researcher at Ethical Consumer Magazine, where she specialised in migrant workers’ rights in the food industry. Her work has been published in The Guardian and New Internationalist.

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