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New law banning routine use of farm antibiotics has major weaknesses

News Section Icon Published 17/05/2024

Vet talking to farmer with cows in background

After years of campaigning by the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics – of which we are a founding member – the UK Government has finally introduced legislation to ban routine use of antibiotics on farms, and the use to compensate for poor hygiene, inadequate animal husbandry, or poor farm management practices.

Whilst we welcome this new legislation, which comes into effect today (17th May) as an important step forward, the regulations simply don't go far enough.

UK legislation weaker than EU

The new UK farm antibiotic use rules are weaker than the EU legislation introduced in 2022 and we are concerned they will allow some poorly run farms to keep feeding antibiotics to large groups of animals, even when no disease is present.

Cóilín Nunan, Policy and Science Manager at 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.”

Preventive antibiotic use must end

Unlike the EU, the Westminster Government has refused to ban the practice of feeding 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 preventive use, but it never put forward any plans to do so.

The new regulations do say that preventive 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”.

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 preventive 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, because 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.

Lagging behind

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.

Cóilín Nunan said: “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.”

More meaningful change required

The Alliance is calling on the Government to:

  • Ban the routine use of antibiotics
  • Introduce mandatory antibiotic-use data collection
  • Set new, more ambitious targets for reducing farm antibiotic use
  • Improve minimum husbandry standards to reduce the need for antibiotics

Find out more about the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics.


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