Vets urge caution over E.coli superbug claims

The British Veterinary Association (BVA) has questioned the Soil Association’s (SA) assertion that there is “overwhelming evidence” that the use of antibiotics in UK livestock farms is contributing to an “epidemic” of E.coli infections in humans.

It said that leading scientitic opinion suggests there is no evidence to draw this conclusion and that the claims risked a "kneejerk reaction" of blanket restrictions on the use of these medicines by veterinary surgeons.

Carl Padgett, president of the BVA, said: “Claims by the SA that there is ‘overwhelming evidence’ need to be treated with caution.

“The BVA is concerned that kneejerk reactions to the very real problem of antimicrobial resistance can lead to blanket restrictions on the use of these medicines by veterinary surgeons, that are not backed up by scientific evidence.

He added that the BVA encourages responsible use of medicines, specifically recommending that these antimicrobials should be reserved for clinical conditions that respond poorly to other classes of antimicrobials.

The BVA pointed to leading opinion by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which said that there were few studies available that had been designed to assess risk for a new strain of extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL) E.coli, and that it was unknown how widespread the ESBL-carrying bacteria was in food-producing animals. It also said that research from the University of Glasgow had questioned the incidence of resistance in animals and the use of antibiotics as a predictor of incidence in man, although it noted that this did not specifically look at E.coli and welcomed more research in this area.  

However, the BVA said it wholeheartedly supported the SA’s call for a stronger regulatory framework for the newer antibiotics.

The British Poultry Council also disputed the SA’s report, saying that the UK poultry meat sector follows a responsible and responsive programme of antimicrobial stewardship. Peter Bradnock, chief executive of the British Poultry Council, said: “We are aware of new scientific information on ESBLs and the ways they develop, and have reflected this in changes in the categories of antibiotics and prescription criteria for antibiotic treatment of chickens. We are not, however, aware of any recent evidence that ESBLs are increasing in chicken farms across the UK.
“The British poultry industry is voluntarily stopping the use of certain categories of antibiotics important to human medicine. We are steadfastly committed to the highest standards of antimicrobial stewardship in the treatment of diseases in UK poultry production.”

The SA has defended its report, saying that it reviewed a large number of scientific studies, including those by Defra, which, taken together, provided "overwhelming" evidence.

It also noted that its claim does not relate specifically to ESBL resistance, but to antibiotic resistance in E.coli generally, including resistance to important antibiotics such as fluoroquinolones and aminoglycosides, which are used to treat E.coli infections. It said that human antibiotic use is also implicated in the spread of resistance to these antibiotics.

But the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) Alliance, an independent alliance representing organisations at all stages of the food chain to promote food safety, animal health and welfare, accused the SA of scare-mongering. It said: “The SA has produced a report of cherry-picked comments from other papers and very small sample numbers extrapolated to the whole UK to provide alarmist and scaremongering comments for their press release.”

It added that the SA’s approach did not encourage a collaborative approach to tackle the issues, but despite this, it was still available for “sensible discussions" on the use of medicines.

“This is an internationally important issue that affects both vetinary and human medicine, and decisions should be taken on good scientific evidence not propaganda produced to support one type of farming system," it said.

>Report links E.coli to livestock antibiotics


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