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Too simplistic to equate systems to antibiotic use

15th Nov 2017 / By Alistair Driver

It is too simplistic to link production system to antibiotic use to, the NPA’s Georgina Crayford told a conference on antibiotics in livestock in London.

ASOA panel

Georgina took part in a constructive debate hosted by the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics (ASOA) in London, on Monday, to discuss a report which called for changes to farming systems to address overuse of antibiotics in farming, including a later weaning age.

Coilin Nunan, ASOA’s scientific advisor, kicked off the event by praising the ‘really significant’ progress made by the livestock sector in reducing antibiotic use over the past two years, including the 35% drop recorded by the pig industry in 2016.

But he said use remained too high in the UK pig sector, particularly compared with other EU countries, with the 2016 figure of 183mg/kg approximately four times higher than the Danish and Dutch pig sectors.

Mr Nunan went through the arguments laid out in ASOA’s report. While antibiotic use can be significantly reduced without changing farming methods, ‘much lower levels of use’ are achieved in organic, free range and other less intensive farming systems, he said.

The report calls for new regulation in the UK and the EU to ban preventative use of antibiotics in groups where no disease has been diagnosed and impose controls and bans on critically important antibiotics (CIAs). It also calls for measure to improve animal health and welfare in all antibiotic reduction strategies.

Factors affecting antibiotic use include breeds, diets, stocking densities, access to outdoors, weaning age and straw bedding, Mr Nunan added. The report also calls for action and transparency on antibiotic use by supermarkets.

Really proud

When her turn came Georgina said the NPA was ‘really proud’ of the reductions recorded in antibiotic use in pigs, which also included a 73% reduction in CIAs, which now represent just 0.1% of total usage in pigs.

“Those figures encapsulate the excellent progress the pig industry has made and a lot of hard work has gone into achieving that progress. But we know we are still relatively high users of antibiotics relative to other EU countries and acknowledge that we have further work to do. That is why we have committed, through the RUMA Targets Task Force to achieving a 62% reduction between 2015 and 2020, the biggest reduction across all sectors,” she said.

Georgina pointed out that the pig industry had distanced itself from the over-simplistic approach of judging welfare based on production systems in favour of measuring welfare outcomes.

“That same approach is needed for antibiotic use. Looking at the system – access to outdoors or straw – is too simplistic. We really need to be looking at outcomes and that means responsible use of antibiotics and a reduction in use.”

“It is about identifying best practice in all the different systems.”

She directly addressed the question of weaning age, pointing out that weaning is stressful for the piglet at any age, but there are measures farmers can put in place to address this. Extending the suckling period can have a detrimental impact on the sow, while farmers would have to either invest in additional farrowing accommodation or reduce herd numbers.

Some of the research on the benefits of later weaning compared weaning at 16-18 days with ‘late-weaning’ at 21 days. In the UK weaning is typically done at 26-27 days, suggesting on the basis of this study ‘we already have later weaning’. “Moving to even later weaning is not something I can see the industry doing,” she said.

Panel debate 

Georgina and Mr Nunan appeared on a panel with Gwyn Jones, chairman of the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) alliance, the Soil Association’s Peter Melchett and Kitty Healey, from the Veterinary Medicines Directorate.

Mr Jones echoed Georgina’s comments on productions systems, pointing out, in a sometimes impassioned defence of the range of production systems in UK farming, that he had recently visited two intensive farms that had both cut antibiotic use to very low levels.  

He said: “Antibiotic use is not a factor of scale or system of farming, despite efforts to present it as such. Quoting selective evidence does not change this, nor the need for British food and farming to remain competitive, safe and high quality. Treating and preventing disease is also complex. This is why bans can be ineffective with unintended consequences for animal welfare.”

He praised the farming industry’s success in achieving a 27% reduction in antibiotic sales over two years and the dramatic reductions in highest priority antibiotics but, pointed out this has happened with neither bans nor regulation.

While there was disagreement on the panel on issues like farming system and weaning age, there was much common ground, too.

There was general agreement that support from Government and the supply chain was needed if the industry is to invest to make further improvements in animal health and welfare. But Mr Jones dismissed suggestions that consumers could be asked to pay more to facilitate system changes, arguing this was unrealistic in the current climate, particularly given the desire of many for a cheap food post-Brexit policy.

There was, in fact, consensus across the panel about the scale of the threat to the UK livestock industry and its current health and welfare standard posed by cheap imports produced with higher antibiotic use under future trade deals.

"I agree with Georgina," the outspoken Peter Melchett, of the Soil Association, said at one point on the subject. 

Proof that, while the differences will remain, there also many common concerns in this debate.