Antibiotic Free – a hot topic and a dangerous USP

Georgina and I have been in the Hague, Holland for three days soaking up plenty of information about global antibiotic use in livestock, so here is a little taster of what we learned.

Whilst we often enviously look at countries like Denmark and the Netherlands in terms of what they have achieved, and regularly have their success poked in our faces by others who believe we haven’t done enough, there is huge variation in between countries.

The common factor though amongst the 30 or so countries represented at the conference ranging from Vietnam, South Korea, Kenya to Australia the US and Canada, was that all of them had some kind of a plan as to how they were going to deal with the issue of antibiotic resistance in humans and livestock.

Of course the myriad of antibiotic stewardship plans that we heard about are only any good if they are acted upon, and many have challenges to overcome.

We heard that in the US, of the 500,000 beef farmers, around half never see a vet. Now the FDA has brought many products under veterinary control so they need a prescription, they are faced with the distinct possibility they really don’t have enough vets to write all the scripts.

In addition, they are only banning ‘medically’ important drugs to human health for use as growth promoters, which bizarrely at the moment don’t include colistin, while many others will continue to be used. Still, at least they won’t be able to purchase medicated feed from the local farm stores anymore!

South Korea made all the right noises talking about responsible use principles, banning use of critically important drugs and all antibiotics as growth promoters from 2011. Their position, much like ours, is that regulatory decisions should be based on science and risk assessment – not politics.

China continues to impress at 52 million sows but has a big task ahead to reduce the estimated 80,000T of antibiotics used. They have however committed in their action plan to strengthen the supervision of antibiotics, ban the use of critically important drugs and, as of March, have banned colistin as a growth promoter.

The hotly debated topic of ‘antibiotic free’ also came up following a very interesting presentation, albeit by a pharma company, showing in the US that 780 million more birds would be needed to manage the demand for antibiotic free chicken as the current mortality rate was around 50% higher than conventional.

Those birds would need to eat 6mt of feed and 3bn litres more water – so not a great environmental footprint! Mention was made of people euthanasing stock rather than treating them which of course would not be acceptable for large herds/flocks.

The general consensus was that this USP being used by food service and retailers was dangerous and needed spelling out to them. Needless to say we’ve already started in the UK – fine for smaller contracts where people can manage with a good premium but certainly not something we would encourage as the accepted norm for retail!

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About The Author

Dr Zoë Davies is chief executive of the NPA. For more information visit: