Search icon

UK faces weakest antibiotics regulations in Europe

News Section Icon Published 20/11/2019

On Monday (18th November), the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics published a report reviewing and examining 50 years of antibiotic use on farm animals.

The new report Swann song for routine antibiotic use, 50 years on?, launched on the first day of this year’s World Antibiotics Awareness Week, explores  the use of and regulations on antibiotic use in animal farming. This is exactly 50 years after the seminal Swann government report (1969).

The Swann report

The 1969 Swann report stated that the intensification of livestock farming had led to more disease problems and that it could not find “any excuse in logic or theory” for the practice of feeding antibiotics preventatively to groups of farm animals. It concluded that the overuse of antibiotics in farming was a threat to human health.

Fifty years later, intensive farming is still associated with major disease problems, and mass medication with antibiotics, or other forms of medication, remains common.

Cóilín Nunan, Scientific Adviser at the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, said: “Fifty years ago the Swann committee gave in to pressure from vested interests and failed to recommend an end to preventative mass medication, even though it knew the practice was unjustifiable and the cause of a deadly outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella. Half a century later, still no one has come forward with a valid reason for allowing this misuse of antibiotics to continue.”

50 years of limited progress

The new, in-depth report outlines the challenges that lie ahead, warning that increased post-Brexit competition from imports produced to lower standards could undermine and even reverse recent reductions in British farm animal antibiotic use.

Additionally, it states that if the future Government pursues trade deals with countries that have lower farming standards, health and environmental protections may be threatened.

In recent years, many farmers voluntarily limited preventative mass medication, contributing to a 50% reduction in antibiotic use. However, despite this good progress, use remains higher than it was before the 1969 Swann report.

In 2018, the European Parliament voted to end the practice of treating groups of healthy animals with antibiotics. The ban will come into force in 2022, after the UK’s planned exit from the EU. So far, the UK has refused to commit to the same ban after Brexit, despite senior medics calling on the 2018 Health and Environment Secretaries to do so.

A double threat

Cóilín continued: “The good progress that has been made here in recent years through voluntary action, is now at risk if the UK decides to undercut EU regulations and open the British market to cheap imports produced with very big antibiotic use. Increased competition may convince some farmers to reverse cuts in antibiotic use, presenting us all with the double threat of low-quality imports and a race to the bottom in UK farming”.

To find out more about the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics’ work or to keep up-to-date with news on farm antibiotic use, you can subscribe to their newsletter.