It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith on securing the debate, which is on an important subject. I shall say at the outset that, although I just about heard all the many questions that he asked me, I can say with complete confidence that I fear that I will be unable to answer any—well, a large number of them—in my speech this afternoon, but I undertake to ensure that he receives full written answers to them all. As you will understand, Mrs Main, and as I am sure he will too, it is impossible to answer them all in this short debate, especially because it is such a technical matter, with so many important questions that require technical, detailed responses.
I must begin by saying that of course we all recognise that antimicrobial resistance poses a threat to human and animal health. I can assure my hon. Friend and others that the Government take this resistance very seriously. DEFRA and its agencies have been collaborating for many years with the Department of Health, the Health Protection Agency and the Food Standards Agency on this issue. The Government’s collective objective is to ensure that antibiotic use in animals does not become a significant clinical problem for human health. I am told that there is little evidence on antimicrobial resistance transmission routes from animals to humans. The concern is that if bacteria in food-producing and companion animals develop resistance to drugs used in human medicine, those could be transferred to humans via food or through direct contact.
Controls in the veterinary sector need to be carefully balanced to minimise undesirable animal welfare issues and not hamper the efficiency of UK food production in a way that could disadvantage the industry in relation to other countries where controls may be implemented less well or less effectively enforced. Good farm management, biosecurity measures and animal husbandry systems underpin the health and welfare of food-producing animals. When applied appropriately, they enable the use of antibiotics to be minimised. We all want and welcome that.
We agree that the routine use of antibiotics in animals is unacceptable. I am assured that relevant guidance and regulation is given to the sector to make that absolutely clear. I will ask my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to consider whether current guidance on the responsible use of antibiotics can be strengthened to make it clear that the routine administration of antibiotics is not acceptable. I am also told that intensive farming systems do not necessarily use large amounts of antibiotics. Some have high health status livestock and so use very limited quantities of antibiotics.
The Government fully appreciate that effective controls are needed in the environmental, agricultural, food production, animal and human health sectors. Failure to act promptly and comprehensively could mean that we face impending problems with implications for animal health and welfare and knock-on effects for food supply and safety, as well as, ultimately, human health and patient safety.
Although the link between antimicrobial use in animals and the spread of resistance in humans is not well understood, there is scientific consensus that the use of antimicrobials in human medicine is the main driving force for antimicrobial-resistant human infections. The majority of resistant strains affecting humans are different from those affecting animals. Bearing that in mind, we have developed an integrated strategy to tackle the challenge of antibiotic resistance, and resistance to other antimicrobials, such as antifungals.
We have been working with DEFRA and other stakeholders to develop a new UK five-year antimicrobial resistance strategy and action plan, which we aim to publish shortly. The strategy will address all sectors, including veterinary use. To have maximum impact, the new integrated strategy will focus on a wide range of intervention measures to safeguard human and animal health, including: promoting responsible prescribing; improving infection prevention and control; raising awareness of the problem; improving the scientific evidence base; facilitating the development of new treatments; strengthening surveillance, and strengthening collaboration, data and technology.
There is general agreement that responsible prescribing is central to slowing down the development of antimicrobial resistance in humans and animals. Antibiotics, used responsibly, remain a vital part of the veterinary surgeons’ toolbox, without which animals suffering from a bacterial infection could not be treated effectively. The use of antibiotics in veterinary medicine is controlled by veterinary prescription and is equivalent to arrangements for humans. In that way, we are encouraging the responsible use of antibiotics and minimising their routine use.
In addition, the use of antibiotics as growth promoters has been banned in the EU since 2006, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park informed us. In the dairy industry, if a cow has been treated with antibiotics, the milk should be isolated, and there is regular routine testing of tanks to ensure that there are no traces of antibiotics. Those are some of the many checks in place to ensure that antibiotics do not get into the human food chain.