NFU hits back at SA's 'cynical' attack

The National Farmers' Union has branded as "pathetic" claims by the Soil Association that antibiotic-resistant E.coli and salmonella superbugs are now widespread on British farms.

The comments came as the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA) annual conference, hosted in association with the Government Veterinary Surgeons and Association of Government Veterinarians, was held at Warwick University last month.

Richard Young from the Soil Association (SA) said: "There has been little public scrutiny of farm antibiotic use for over a decade. Yet during that time, we have seen farmers dramatically increase their use of antibiotics, classified by the World Health Organisation as 'critically important in human medicine', and the development of several serious antibiotic-resistant bugs in farm animals, which are passing to humans on food and in other ways. It is high time the government took this problem seriously."

Yet his comments met with a backlash from the NFU. "Like people, animals get ill and need medicines," said NFU head of food and farming Kevin Pearce. "This is true regardless of the type of management system on a farm and there is no evidence that more intensive farming systems use more veterinary medicines, or particularly use more antibiotics. And there are strict withdrawal periods before products enter the food chain.

"The SA's attempts to hijack this conference in the press to pursue their own agenda demonstrates a complete lack of understanding about the use of antibiotics on-farm. This is a cynical attack, designed to wreck consumer confidence in the wider food market."

Scientists at the VLA conference discussed a new type of antibiotic resistance in E.coli, known as extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL) resistance, which has spread to one in three of all dairy farms in England and Wales. One study links the rise of ESBL E.coli on farms to the increasing use of modern antibiotics. The same study will present evidence that the sale of animals from infec-ted farms has increased the problem.

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