Excessive farm antibiotics fuelling superbug epidemic

In a report published today, the Soil Association warns there is now “overwhelming evidence” that the excessive use of antibiotics on UK livestock farms is contributing to the rise of drug resistance in human E. coli infections.

The report, E. coli superbugs on farms and food estimates that 750,000–1,500,000 people in the UK contracted an E. coli infection in 2011, resulting in nearly 40,000 cases of blood poisoning and nearly 8,000 deaths. Cases of E. coli blood poisoning have increased nearly fourfold in the last 20 years.

The report highlights concerns over a new and virulent form of E. coli. known as ESBL E. coli. It is described by Government scientists as “extremely resistant” to many classes of antibiotics. Patients with ESBL E. coli blood poisoning are nearly three times as likely to die as other affected patients.

The prevalence of ESBL E. coli on British farms has increased dramatically since it was first identified in 2004. This, says the Soil Association, is “almost certainly due to high levels of antibiotic use on farms”.

Professor Peter Collignon, director of the Infectious Diseases Unit and Microbiology Department at Canberra Hospital, Australia, who wrote the foreword of the report said: “It is very important that we stop multi-resistant bacteria developing in food animals to prevent their spread to people. To do that we need to address the issue of inappropriate use of antibiotics in farming, just as much as in the health profession”.

Dr Ron Daniels from the United Kingdom Sepsis Trust, in a statement of support, said: “It is now certain that agricultural, veterinary and food industry use of antibiotics – which represents one half of all antibiotic use in the U.K – impacts on antibiotic resistance in animals which in turn impacts on antibiotic resistance in humans. Antibiotic resistance is developing faster than we can develop new antibiotics – if we don’t act now, we will rapidly arrive at a situation where we are unable to treat some bacterial infections.”

Richard Young, Soil Association policy advisor and co-author of the report, said:

“Just about every non-organic chicken in the UK is still routinely put on antibiotics from the day it is hatched. The UK does not have an effective strategy for addressing the rising levels of antibiotic resistance on farms and food, and is the only EU country still allowing antibiotics to be advertised to farmers.”

The Soil Association’s key recommendations include:

·        Phasing out the preventative use of antibiotics in healthy animals and halving the overall use of antibiotics on farms within five years.

·        Moving towards higher welfare and less intensive production systems which have the potential to reduce the use of antibiotics in farming significantly. [3]

·        Greatly reduce the use of modern cephalosporins and fluoroquinolones and prohibit off-label use.

·        Prohibit the advertising of antibiotics to farmers in the UK and any advertisement to veterinary surgeons should be purely factual and not emotive in any way.