Animal antibiotic sales in the UK fall to record low

Sales of antibiotics for use in animals have fallen to their lowest level since records began, according to a Defra report.

The report showed that sales of antibiotics for use in food-producing animals dropped by 27%, from 62 mg/kg in 2014 to 45mg/kg in 2016. That surpassed a government target of 50 mg/kg set following recommendations in the 2016 O’Neill Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, the deadline for which was 2018.

In 2013 the government launched a five-year strategy to reduce the development and spread of antibiotic resistance in animals and humans. As part of this strategy it provided expert advice to the farming industry and veterinary profession, encouraging more responsible use of antibiotics to safeguard them for the future.

Defra identifies antibiotic resistance as a major threat to modern medicine, with estimates suggesting it could be responsible for ten million deaths per year by 2050 and cost the global economy $100 trillion.

Defra Minister for Rural Affairs and Biosecurity, Lord Gardiner, said: “The fact we have overtaken our target two years ahead of schedule demonstrates our commitment to preventing the inappropriate use of antibiotics and shows our approach is working.

“Our farmers and vets must be commended for setting an excellent example for others around the world to follow, upholding the UK’s position at the forefront of international efforts to keep antibiotics available for future generations.

“Now we must continue making progress and set our sights on reducing use even further. Ambitious specific reduction targets in different sectors will be yet another positive step towards safeguarding antibiotics.”

Antibiotic reduction

As well as the overall reduction, the report shows a further drop in sales of the highest priority antibiotics regarded as critically important for humans. Sales of these accounted for less than 1% of all antibiotics sold for use in animals in 2016.

This included an 83% reduction in the use of Colistin, an antibiotic of last resort for use in people. Colistin use is now at an already very low level of use, 0.02mg/kg, putting it considerably below the European Medicines Agency’s target of 1mg/kg.

UK chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens said: “These results are immensely positive to see and show the combined efforts of vets and farmers to reduce antibiotic use are paying off. Vets are taking accountability for their prescribing decisions and farmers are investing in disease prevention.

“We need solidarity across the profession; no veterinary professional must offer an easy route to access antibiotics where they are not justified.

“Tackling antibiotic resistance requires a commitment across all areas of animal health, together with work on human use by colleagues in the medical professions, and our work together to tackle the issue at global level.”

In response to the report’s findings, British Veterinary Association senior vice president Gudrun Ravetz said: “The VARSS data marks a major milestone in the concerted efforts of vets, government and the industry to tackle the global threat of antimicrobial resistance with the target set following the O’Neill Review achieved two years ahead of schedule.

“It is extremely encouraging to see reductions in antibiotic use, including Critically Important Antibiotics, across all livestock industries for which data was made available this year.  

“It is vital that we continue to build upon these achievements through evidence-based, sector-specific targets to further refine, reduce or replace antibiotic use in the livestock sector. Continued collaboration between the health sectors, underpinned by a commitment from each of us within the veterinary profession to maintain the highest standards of stewardship in using antibiotics, most especially Critically Important Antibiotics, is the only way we can preserve these essential medicines for future generations.”

British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths said:
“We are very proud to be part of a nation that is at the forefront of global efforts to tackle Antimicrobial Resistance. The fact we have overtaken our target two years ahead of schedule shows our approach around sustainable use of antibiotics is working.

"British poultry meat farmers and vets have set an excellent example for others around the world to follow. We are very pleased to have established ourselves as the ‘pathfinders’ for the rest of the livestock farming sector and to uphold UK’s position at the forefront of international efforts to keep antibiotics available for future generations.

"By ensuring that antibiotic therapies are used with good animal husbandry techniques ‘only when necessary’ and under the direction of a veterinarian has resulted in us stopping the prophylactic use of antibiotics, which we are very proud of. An openness in our sector to encourage innovation and share best practice has helped reduce our use of antibiotics by 71% (23.72 tonnes in 2016) in the last four years, while production increased by 11% (1.79m tonnes in 2016)."

A task force established by the industry alliance Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) is to publish further targets on antibiotic use to show how each farming sector will build on the progress already made.

The National Pig Association's Zoe Davies said the industry would be ready to take on these new targets."

“The figures we expect to see published today are likely show the really good progress made right across the industry in reducing and refining antibiotic use. We know that the targets will be challenging for individual farms when faced with specific disease issues – and antibiotics will continue to serve as an important tool to protect pig health. But, as an industry-wide target, we believe they are achievable."

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