The overuse of antibiotics on farm animals is rife in some of the key countries with which the UK is hoping to strike a post-Brexit trade deal, a new report shows, raising fears that future deals will jeopardise public health and British farming.
The US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada all allow farmers to feed antibiotics routinely to livestock to make them grow faster, and in the US and Canada farm antibiotic use is about five times the level in the UK, data compiled by the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics shows.
Meat produced in this way is cheaper, because the animals grow faster and can be kept in overcrowded conditions. But the meat is soon to be banned in the EU, for safety and public health reasons.
Antibiotic use in cattle in the US is about seven times that in the UK, and in pigs twice as high, according to the report. In Australia, the use of antibiotics in poultry is more than 16 times higher than in the UK, and use in pigs about three times higher.
Farm antibiotic use has risen in the US, Canada and New Zealand in recent years, and in Australia was rising in 2010, the latest year for which full data was available. Some of the drugs used are also problematic: the growth promoter bacitracin is used in the US, despite scientific evidence that it increases resistance to an antibiotic of last resort called colistin, used to treat life-threatening infections in people.
Cóilín Nunan, scientific adviser to the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, said: “Antibiotic resistance is a global problem, and we need to raise standards around the world to prevent it increasing. These free-trade agreements need to take that into account.”
Overusing antibiotics on farm animals gives rise to resistant forms of bacteria, known as superbugs, which can have devastating consequences for human health. Meat infected with resistant bacteria can directly cause infections in people, and can also contribute to a more general rise in people’s resistance to antibiotic treatments.
British farmers also face the prospect of being undercut by imports of cheaply produced antibiotic-treated meat, which could reduce welfare standards in the UK, as farmers will be forced to stock their animals more densely to cut costs and compete with floods of cheap imports.
“UK producers will be forced to compete by reducing costs, which means larger numbers of animals in worse conditions, which means an increase in the use of antibiotics,” said Nunan. “Any new trade deals must not undermine British standards and threaten public health by allowing cheap meat and dairy produced with antibiotic growth promoters into the UK.”
Medical experts are increasingly worried about the rapid rise of antibiotic resistance around the world, which could leave us defenceless against common diseases, and make routine operations such as caesarean sections or hip replacements potentially fatal. Antibiotics are used far more on animals than on people around the world, but moves to curb their use have been rejected by the powerful farming lobbies in many countries.
Antibiotic use is more tightly controlled in the EU than elsewhere, and the use of the drugs as a growth promoter has been banned since 2006. In the UK, the use of antibiotics in farming has been broadly falling in the last half decade, to about half the levels of 2014, though there was a slight uptick last year.
In just over a year’s time, from January 2022, stricter EU rules will ban the import of meat treated routinely with antibiotics as a growth promoter, and ban all preventive antibiotic mass medication of livestock. The UK is unlikely to sign up to this ban.
The government has repeatedly said that chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef would continue to be banned from the UK after Brexit, after widespread concern about food standards in future trade deals. However, food and farming experts have pointed out that this still leaves the door open to hundreds of other forms of food and agricultural products that are currently restricted under EU safety rules, and under current processes many of these could be quietly signed into legal acceptance without public scrutiny.
Nunan called the forthcoming EU regulations “a huge step forward” and called on ministers to adopt them in the UK. “The UK government should commit to implementing the same ban [on preventive mass medication], as relying on voluntary action is not a sustainable approach for the long term. It should also ensure that trade deals set high standards for imports to protect human health and avoid undercutting British standards.”
A government spokesperson said: “This government has been clear that we will not compromise on our world-leading environmental protections, animal welfare and food standards.
“The UK already prohibits the use of artificial growth hormones in both domestic production and imported products – and this will continue after the transition period. We will also continue to operate robust controls on the medicines that can be used for all animals, including food-producing ones, to protect animal and human health and the environment.”