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New law banning routine use of farm antibiotics flawed by major weaknesses and loopholes

News Section Icon Published 17/05/2024

New legislation which comes into force today (17 May) bans the routine use of antibiotics on farm animals and their use “to compensate for poor hygiene, inadequate animal husbandry, or poor farm management practices”. Prophylactic use is also being restricted to “exceptional circumstances”. These are major improvements in the regulation of British farm antibiotic use.

Unfortunately, the rules are far weaker than similar legislation introduced in the European Union in January 2022. Loopholes and weaknesses in the legislation and how it is interpreted may allow the overuse of antibiotics on farms to continue.

Cóilín Nunan of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, said: “Some of the new rules on farm antibiotic use are welcome and long overdue. Unfortunately, the government has deliberately weakened the legislation, in comparison to the EU’s, and this will allow some poorly run farms to keep on feeding large groups of animals antibiotics, even when no disease is present. We are also concerned the ban on using antibiotics to compensate for inadequate animal husbandry and poor farm management practices may not be properly implemented.”

Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists, Professor Roberto La Ragione, Head of the School of Biosciences at the University of Surrey, said: “Antibiotics are critical to human and animal medicine, but the emergence of resistance is a global concern. Therefore, we must reduce their use to help stop the emergence and spread of resistance. We know that animal health and welfare are inextricably linked to our own, so it is vital that antibiotic resistance is tackled in humans and animals, and we can all play a part, from the scientific community to pet owners, vets, doctors, pharmacists, companies, farmers, and the government.”

In response to the new legislation, the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics is calling on the government to:

  • Ban group prophylaxis with antibiotics.
  • Introduce mandatory antibiotic-use data collection.
  • Set new, more ambitious targets for reducing farm antibiotic use. About 75% of UK farm antibiotic use is still for group treatments. A targets should be set to reduce group treatments to less than 30% by 2030. A target should be set to cut farm antibiotic use by 40% by 2030.
  • Major improvements to minimum husbandry standards are needed to reduce the need for antibiotics, including reduction in stocking densities, using appropriate breeds, improvements to diets and a shift to later weaning of piglets.

Unlike the EU, the Westminster government has refused to ban the practice of feeding prophylactic or preventative antibiotics to groups of animals where no animals have been diagnosed as sick. In 2018, the government stated in Parliament that it intended to implement the EU’s restrictions on prophylactic use, but it never put forward any plans to do so.

Furthermore, statements being made by the government and regulators already raise serious questions about how well the legislation will be implemented in practice.

The government’s regulator, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD), has said that group prophylactic treatments should be allowed because some farms would need to make “improvements to farm infrastructure and management practices” to reduce or eliminate disease, and this can take time. This suggests that in practice the VMD will allow some farmers to continue using antibiotics to compensate for poor farm management practices, despite the legislation explicitly banning such use.

The new regulations say that prophylactic treatments will only be permitted “in exceptional circumstances where the risk of an infection or of an infectious disease is very high and where the consequences of not prescribing the product are likely to be severe”. This is a welcome restriction, based on an equivalent EU law.

However, when asked by Daniel Zeichner MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to clarify what is meant by “exceptional” use, Sir Mark Spencer MP, the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, said prophylactic use “would be permitted only where there would be a risk of infection or severe consequences if antibiotics were not applied”.

This suggests that prophylactic use could still occur quite frequently, since when animals are kept in highly intensive conditions, there is often a significant risk of infection. If the risk of disease occurring in intensive farming is viewed as being an exceptional circumstance, then prophylactic antibiotic use could effectively continue as before.

Mandatory antibiotic-use data collection is needed
The government has also decided against introducing mandatory antibiotic-use data collection, preferring to rely on data collected voluntarily by industry. In contrast, the EU began collecting mandatory antibiotic-use data for pigs, poultry and cattle last year, and will publish the first EU-wide report with the results next year.

The UK already has voluntary data collection, but most dairy, beef and sheep farms are not currently submitting any data to industry systems [11].

Cóilín Nunan added: “Not introducing statutory antibiotic-use data collection is irresponsible and hard to understand. Accurate, reliable data is needed for every farm, as this helps minimise misuse and identify and promote best practice. The UK will now be lagging behind most of Europe when it comes to understanding how and why antibiotics are used on its farms.”


For more information or to arrange an interview please email or call 01483 521 615.

Notes to Editors:

  1. The Alliance to Save our Antibiotics is an alliance of health, medical, civil-society and animal-welfare groups campaigning to stop the overuse of antibiotics in animal farming. It was founded by Compassion in World Farming, the Soil Association and Sustain in 2009. Our vision is a world in which human and animal health and well-being are protected by food and farming systems that do not rely on routine antibiotic use. 

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