The antibiotic time bomb

The UK’s chief medical officer has warned that, through excessive use of antibiotics, the livestock industry is potentially signing a “death warrant” for future medical patients.

In his annual report, Sir Liam Donaldson said that widespread use of antibiotics in livestock is leading to antibiotic resistance in humans, which poses a serious threat to human health. He advised that antibiotics should only be used in moderation in livestock and only when absolutely necessary for animal welfare. “The effectiveness of antibiotics should be seen as a common and collective public good. Every inappropriate use in medicine or agriculture is a potential source of harm or death for a future patient,” he said.

Groups such as the Soil Association and Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) have called on the government to take “decisive action” to reduce antibiotic use in livestock.

Soil Association policy advisor Richard Young said: “It is simply not acceptable to allow methods of food production that take away one of the biggest advances in medical science – our ability to treat and cure serious infections in the human population with antibiotics.”

The CMO’s report coincides with the release of a documentary on the Ecologist website, exploring the link between the rise of a new strain of MRSA and the use of antibiotics on intensive pig farms. The documentary, Sick as a Pig, is filmed in the Netherlands, where an estimated 40% of pigs and 50% of pig farmers are carrying the new strain. The film-makers claim that MRSA ST398 is now spreading to the wider population, causing one in three cases of MRSA in Dutch hospitals.

Dutch scientists, government officials and animal rights groups blame the widespread use of antibiotics in intensive pig farming for the rise and rapid spread of farm-animal MRSA. But Henk Boelrijk, of LTO Netherland’s pig department, challenged the argument that Dutch farmers use too many antibiotics, saying a large number of animals would always mean “using a lot of medicine”.

It is not yet known whether any British pigs are infected with the new MRSA strain. The EU carried out testing in 2008, but the UK’s results have not been made public yet.

Scientists have warned that the bug could enter the UK via imports of infected meat, but Rob Smith, communications manager for major Dutch importer Vion, assured that “established and effective” controls are in place to monitor imports for MRSA

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