Why production systems should not cloud antibiotic drive

The drive to reduce antibiotic use must be driven by outcomes, rather than production systems, leading industry figures told a conference on antibiotics in livestock.

The event was staged by the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics (ASOA) in London, in November, to discuss a report in which it called for changes to farming systems to address overuse of antibiotics in farming.

Cóilín Nunan, ASOA’s scientific adviser, began by praising the ‘really significant’ progress made by the livestock sector over the past two years, including the 35% drop in antibiotic usage by the UK pig industry in 2016. But he said the sector’s usage remained too high, with the 2016 figure of 183mg/kg four times higher than the Danish and Dutch pig sectors’ figures.

Outlining the report’s key findings, Mr Nunan said, while antibiotic use can be significantly reduced without changing farming methods, ‘much lower levels of use’ are achieved in organic, free-range and other less intensive farming systems.

The report acknowledged that there is ‘still a significant lack of usage data’ comparing antibiotic use in different systems. But it pointed to various pieces of research, including a ‘small Defra study’ comparing organic and non-organic farms, to back its claims. It also claimed later weaning helps lower antibiotic use in organic and less intensive systems.
The report outlined ASOA’s calls for a ban at EU and UK level on the preventative use of antibiotics in groups where no disease has been diagnosed and controls and bans on critically important antibiotics (CIAs).

Really proud
During a panel debate, NPA senior policy advisor Georgina Crayford said the association was ‘really proud’ of the reductions recorded in pigs, which also included a 73% reduction in CIAs last year. “Those figures encapsulate the excellent progress the pig industry has made. But we know we are still relatively high users and acknowledge we have further work to do. That is why we have committed, through the RUMA Targets Task Force, to achieving a 62% reduction between 2015 and 2020,” she said.

But she insisted looking at production systems, such as access to outdoors or straw bedding, was ‘too simplistic’ when it came to issues like animal welfare and antibiotic use. “We really need to be looking at outcomes and that means responsible use of antibiotics and a reduction in use. It is about identifying best practice in all the different systems,” she said.

The report called for action and transparency by supermarkets and published a table summarising major retailers’ antibiotic-use policies, based on publicly available information. It showed only Waitrose published antibiotic data, while most ban routine use and restrict CIAs.

Addressing the issue of weaning age, she said weaning was stressful for the piglet at any age. Extending the suckling period can have a detrimental impact on the sow, while farmers either have to invest in additional farrowing accommodation or reduce herd numbers, she added.
One piece of research on the benefits of later weaning compared the practice at 16-18 days with ‘late-weaning’ at 21 days. In the UK, weaning is typically done at 26-27 days, suggesting on this basis ‘we already have later weaning’. “Moving to even later weaning is not something I can see the industry doing,” she added.

Selective evidence
Gwyn Jones, chairman of the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) alliance, said he had recently visited two intensive farms that had both cut antibiotic use to very low levels.
“Antibiotic use is not a factor of scale or system of farming, despite efforts to present it as such. Quoting selective evidence does not change this, nor the need for British food and farming to remain competitive, safe and high quality. Treating and preventing disease is also complex. This is why bans can be ineffective with unintended consequences for animal welfare.”

The panel agreed that support was needed from Government and the supply chain to enable the industry to make further improvements in animal health and welfare. But Mr Jones dismissed suggestions consumers would be prepared to pay more to facilitate major system changes.
There was also consensus about the threat to UK health and welfare standards posed by cheap imports produced with higher antibiotic use under future post-Brexit trade deals.

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Editor of LBM titles Pig World and Farm Business and group editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer. National Pig Association's webmaster. Previously political editor at Farmers Guardian for many years and also worked Farmers Weekly. Occasional farming media pundit. Brought up on a Leicestershire farm, now work from a shed in the garden in Oxfordshire. Big fan of Leicester City and Leicester Tigers. Occasional cricketer.