Antibiotic mantra – as little as possible, but as much as necessary

November 11, 2017, is the date by which every Red Tractor-assured pig unit must have two quarters of antibiotic usage data entered onto the eMB-Pigs database in order to maintain their Red Tractor accreditation.   

As I am sure everyone reading this is aware, the main reason this has been implemented is to supply the Veterinary Medicines Directorate with anonymised data regarding pig-specific usage of antibiotics.  This is part of the recently-published sector-specific antibiotic target setting across all production animal species.

Data has previously been collected through the Veterinary Antibiotic Resistance and Sales Surveillance (VARRS) report, based on medicine sales collated from pharmaceutical companies.

This had a number of limitations: many products have multi-species licences and the lag time between collection and reporting was long – 2015 data was only published in November 2016.

The VARRS report for 2015 showed a significant reduction in antibiotic usage across all livestock sectors – by 10% from 2014. When looking at products licensed specifically for pigs, and those for pigs and poultry, usage dropped by approximately 24% and 10% respectively (gross tonnes sold). The latest VARSS figures, which are about to be published as I write, were expected to show furher progress in 2016.

As a clinician, I have seen a widespread willingness to reduce usage of antibiotics over the last couple of years. On many units, a reduction has already been achieved, which is reflected in the newly-published eMB usage figures for 2015 and 2016.

As time progresses it will become harder to reduce usage, as much of the ‘low hanging fruit’ has already been realised.

Most producers are looking at further measures to improve their herd health and productivity. This often includes significant capital investment in buildings, as well as health improvement programmes, which usually result in a reduction in antibiotic usage.

However, on some farms, our ability to do this can be limited and these producers will be less able to reduce antibiotic usage to the same extent. For example, some diseases, such as strep meningitis, make alternative control options such as vaccines very limited and eradication practically impossible.

One challenge on the horizon is the ban on zinc oxide when used at therapeutic levels. This could seriously damage our industry’s efforts to reduce usage, including of some critically important antimicrobials.

If the targets set are sensible and a viable alternative to zinc oxide can be found, then the industry will be able to achieve them. However, it should be understood that we will always need to be able to medicate groups of pigs in order to maintain our high standards of welfare. The adopted strategy must be to use as little as possible, but as much as necessary.

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