Use of Antibiotics in Farm Animals

– in the House of Commons at 3:53 pm on 2nd March 1999.

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Photo of Bill Etherington Bill Etherington Labour, Sunderland North 3:53 pm, 2nd March 1999

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require Ministers to lay before Parliament proposals for ending the use in farm animals of antibiotics as growth promoters and for restricting the routine use of antibiotics in such animals for prophylactic purposes. It will be difficult in only 10 minutes to cover the complications and ramifications of this subject. Almost a year ago, I attended a meeting organised by the agricultural sub-committee of the Council of Europe, which lasted two days and which dealt solely with this matter. I was quite alarmed by some of the things I learned at that conference. It started an interest in the subject which I intend to continue until some progress is made.

The most alarming aspect, and one that eminent scientists are extremely concerned about, is the way in which the resistance to antibiotics of certain infections is becoming stronger and stronger. One scientist said that we are near the point where only the very strongest antibiotics that we have developed are capable of dealing with some of the virulent strains of infection now occurring around the world. His fear is that, if we lose that battle, the consequences will be horrendous.

One of the reasons for the increase in such superbugs—if I may use that term, even though it carries other connotations—is that, many years ago, antibiotics were given out too readily to human beings. I can remember when they were given out to children with colds and sore throats almost as a matter of course. I remember not being pleased when, 30 years ago, I went to the doctor because I was suffering an attack of boils. I asked for antibiotics, but he refused and explained why; I accepted the explanation, but it did not help the pain.

A few words of explanation about the Bill are needed, because there are two distinct threads in it. The main one is that the Bill would help to eliminate the danger of people having too much antibiotic substance within their system. Secondly, an animal welfare aspect is involved.

The animal welfare aspect can be divided into two strands. The first is that more than 15 per cent. of all antibiotics used on animals are used routinely, as a form of growth enhancer—a food additive. That is totally indefensible. In an unguarded moment, a scientist who was in favour of that use candidly admitted to me that the only reason those antibiotics are used is so that an animal can be fattened with less food. In simple terms, it is a commercial matter, motivated by profit.

The second strand is not quite as simple. I can best put it by saying that, when animals are kept in close proximity to one another in inhumane and poor conditions, infection and the spread of infection are rife and always likely to occur spontaneously. So antibiotics are used in much the same way as we would immunise a child against diphtheria. That was never the intention behind antibiotics: going right back to the time of penicillin, antibiotics were meant to deal with an existing infection.

On the animal welfare aspects of the Bill, there can be no argument to justify the so-called food enhancers. That use is merely a commercial operation; ending it would make little difference to the livestock industry in this country, but it would reduce by 15 per cent. the amount of antibiotics used on animals. The prophylactic argument is more intense, because that use represents more than 35 per cent. of antibiotics that are given to animals, but it could be ended straight away.

Two categories of animal come to mind in that respect. The first is broiler chickens. It is almost a year since I presented a Bill on that subject and I shall not go over the same ground, save to point out that those chickens live in overcrowded conditions where infection is rife. Secondly, pigs are intensively reared, meaning that there are far too many pigs in any given area, often indoors and without proper bedding. All the time, those animals suffer from being given antibiotics as a matter of course, almost as though they were a course of treatment.

Consider that, in this country, 50 per cent. of antibiotics are used by humans and 50 per cent. in animals. We can reduce the 50 per cent. that is used in animals by 50 per cent., making animal use only 25 per cent. of the current total. That would be a significant improvement. The European Union has already banned four antibiotics used for these purposes. While that move is welcome, it does not go far enough because other antibiotics will simply be used instead. I do not wish to frighten people, but I stress that this is an extremely serious problem that may be rectified relatively simply.

I have received support from many groups, including Compassion in World Farming and the Soil Association. I have experienced no outright opposition, although the Pfizer pharmaceuticals company has expressed concern. It recognises that there must be changes in this area, but it does not necessarily want to follow the path that I advocate. I have received supportive phone calls and letters from various people that have greatly encouraged me in my efforts. I am also grateful to hon. Members who have sponsored the Bill.

There is only one black cloud on the horizon, Madam Speaker—and you are certainly no stranger to this problem. I was not very impressed to be told by a journalist that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food opposes my Bill. I expected those concerned to have the common decency at least to telephone me to tell me of their opposition. If I oppose any measure, I try to make my views known to those involved. It is not even about the principles of this place: it is about good manners and decency.

I commend my Bill to the House and hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench will support it. I see that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, is in the Chamber. He is quite an expert on such matters, and he and I have often chatted about the vitamin B6 issue. His views are progressive and I know that he will treat this matter with the seriousness it deserves. We can do something about this problem, and there is no reason why we should not act now.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet 4:02 pm, 2nd March 1999

I notified my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) of my intention to oppose the Bill today, so I hope that he does not include me in his criticisms. As the House is under time pressure, I shall try to put the alternative argument as quickly as possible.

I must state at the outset that the largest employer in my constituency is Pfizer, the pharmaceuticals company mentioned by my hon. Friend. It is best known for manufacturing human medicines, but it is also the largest producer of animal health medicines in the world. I stress that I speak today only as a constituency Member of Parliament: I have no declarable interest in the company. It has not asked me to speak and it has not briefed me for this debate—although I shall draw on some material that the company has provided in recent months.

My hon. Friend makes a strong case, but one, I am afraid, that ignores much of the current and emerging evidence. I will argue that the case that antibiotic growth promoters are unsafe is far from conclusive and that their withdrawal would have serious environmental consequences and a significant economic impact.

It is claimed that antibiotic growth promoters are unsafe mainly because of the possible development of resistant strains of microbes that could infect human beings and prove resistant to human antibiotics. Antibiotic growth promoters have no mutagenic capacity: they cannot change the genetic make-up of microbes. Resistant microbes exist in the environment already, usually at a low frequency because they have a selective disadvantage compared with other organisms.

When an animal is treated with antibiotic growth promoters, the other non-resistant organisms are sometimes removed and, as a consequence, the resistant strain is allowed to flourish. However, the strain is resistant only to that type of antibiotic or family of antibiotics, not to all antibiotics; and can flourish only while the strain is in the animal that is being treated with antibiotics that are removing its competitors.

In other words, as long as there is proper control over which antibiotics are used in humans and which are used in animals, there is very little likelihood that human bacteria will develop resistance to human antibiotics as a result of using animal antibiotics to treat animals. In France, a chemical called virginiamycin has been used to treat animals for over 26 years and a related human compound has been used to treat humans for a similar period, and there is no evidence that resistance to the human bacteria has developed in humans.

The truth is that resistance to human bacteria arises from treating human beings with human antibiotics. It does not arise as a result of farmers treating farm animals. The case for a ban on safety grounds is therefore far from clear.

On environmental grounds, I was told by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, in answer to a written question, that a ban on antibiotic growth promoters in the UK, Germany and France alone would increase the output of nitrates by 78,000 tonnes a year and phosphates by 15,000 tonnes a year. In Sweden, where there is a ban on these products, farmers have had to start adding zinc oxide to feed to deal with the diarrhoea that was previously dealt with by the antibiotics. As a consequence, the Swedes now have a zinc pollution problem and are considering banning zinc oxide, and have no idea about what they will use as a replacement.

Farmers in Sweden have also had to start using therapeutic antibiotics to treat their animals, when previously they would not have had to do so. If potency equivalents are measured, the use of antibiotics has increased as a result of the ban.

On the economic front, the ban would cost farmers in the European Union an additional 2.5 billion ecu a year. It would increase the cost to British consumers by £137 a year each.

For all those reasons, I do not believe that a ban can currently be justified. If we want to err on the side of caution and phase out the products, we should do so only as alternatives become available. Alternatives are being tested and will probably be available in the not-too-distant future. The way forward is not to ban the products but strictly to control the antibiotics used in humans and in animals, to begin more circumspect prescribing of antibiotics in humans, and to increase the research and surveillance carried out.

Unless the balance of evidence changes substantially, there is no justification for a ban that will hurt farmers, consumers and my constituents and add nothing to public safety.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Bill Etherington, Mr. John Austin, Jackie Ballard, Mr. Peter Bottomley, Mr. Vernon Coaker, Mr. Harry Cohen, Dr. Lynne Jones, Mr. Nigel Jones, Mr. Chris Mullin, Dr. Nick Palmer, Mr. Gwyn Prosser and Angela Smith.