Panorama’s spotlight on antibiotics

I have to admit that I must be more of an optimist than I give myself credit for; I always look forward to the British summer, but I’m inevitably disappointed when the weather remains murky grey, or fails to give Mediterranean-like warm evenings, even when I know that the British climate rarely does that.
In fact, it’s actually similar to author Bill Bryson’s description of the English weather: “Sometimes it rained, but mostly it was just dull, a land without shadows. It was like living inside Tupperware.”

The political climate in the area of antimicrobials has persisted in a similar, changeable, vein as our weather. There are certainly storm clouds brewing (highlighted by the recent Panorama programme), the effects being felt by myself and others – NPA, Responsible Use of Medicines Agriculture (RUMA), Pig Veterinary Society and so on – working in this field.

Much of the groundwork needed for the industry has been done, with RUMA and the Antimicrobials Usage subgroup of the Pig Health and Welfare Council working during the past two years to prepare the industry for impending EU reform on antibiotic use.

A big part of the work has been the development of a system that’s able to collate on-farm medicines usage and provide an aggregate value of antibiotic usage. Politically we’ve traditionally been in a weak position regarding antibiotic usage, reliant on total sales data, from which we couldn’t completely separate ourselves from the poultry or gamebird sectors.

The changes to the Red Tractor standards in 2014, requiring collation of annual aggregated data, went some way to addressing this issue but, up until the electronic medicine book for pigs (eMB-Pigs) was launched, there was no method for collecting and collating this data.

This has put the pig industry under significant scrutiny, especially as the poultry meat sector has published its aggregated usage data for the past three years and stewardship plans. Demonstrating its proactive approach publicly has brought into question what the pig industry has been doing in the same period of time.

In fact, the pig industry has been active, even if the collation of data has only just started to take effect. Anecdotal evidence suggests that levels of antibiotics have decreased in the first quarter of this year, which is a strong message and testament to the efforts of producers and vets working hard to minimise the antibiotics required.

The uptake of eMB-Pigs has been extremely encouraging, with about a quarter of the British finishing herd being signed up at the time of writing. However, we’ve a considerable way to go to get a representative sample of usage for the UK.

The topic is high up on the domestic and international political agenda, and was discussed at the G7 summit at the end of May. It’s likely that there’ll be usage targets for livestock coming along at some point soon, but we’ve put in much of the groundwork and, with any luck, we’ll weather the storm.

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About The Author

Martin Smith joined AHDB Pork in September 2014 and is the organisation’s veterinary team manager. He specialises in animal and public health, disease prevention and animal welfare.