Antibiotics (Intensive Farms)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:42 pm on 9th January 2013.

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Photo of Zac Goldsmith Zac Goldsmith Conservative, Richmond Park 4:42 pm, 9th January 2013

I do, and I will be coming to that point as well, but I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady’s intervention.

Clearly, we need to continue with efforts to reduce the inappropriate use of antibiotics by doctors, but the European Food Safety Authority was spot-on—I do not often say that—last year when it warned that

“it is…of high priority to decrease the total antimicrobial use in animal production in the EU.”

To date, the UK Government’s antibiotic resistance strategy, as I have said, has focused exclusively on over-prescribing by doctors, with zero mention of antibiotics in the livestock industry. Although they have spent money trying to understand why we are seeing a rise in bacterial infections, they are spending nothing, as far as I know, to understand the rise in resistance, which is clearly the issue of importance.

The Department of Health is currently developing its new cross-Government, five-year antimicrobial resistance strategy and action plan for 2013 to 2018, so I ask the Minister these questions today. Will she promise that it will give significant consideration to the use of antibiotics on farms and to the link between farm use and resistance? Will the Government work with the veterinary profession and the agricultural industry, as they have done in recent years with the medical profession? Does she agree that we need better data on antibiotic use, published by antibiotic family and by animal species, as is already done in France? If we do not know the type and quantity of antibiotics used and how they are used, there is very little chance of our being able to understand the emergence of resistance.

Furthermore, will the Minister lobby vigorously her ministerial colleagues at DEFRA to take urgent action to restrict the prophylactic use of antibiotics, to limit the prescription and use of antimicrobials for the herd treatment of animals to cases in which a vet has assessed that there is a clear clinical justification and to limit the use of critically important antibiotics to cases in which no other type of antimicrobials will be effective?

Will the Minister call on DEFRA to ban the use of fluoroquinolone antibiotics in poultry production to reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance in E. coli, campylobacter and other infections in humans? Incidentally, it is worth pointing out that campylobacter is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK, affecting some 350,000 people a year, and poultry is the source of between 50% and 80% of those cases. A ban of that sort would bring the UK into line with the US, where the Food and Drug Administration stopped the use of those antibiotics in poultry in 2005, because of increasing resistance in campylobacter. Denmark, Finland and Australia also do not use fluoroquinolones in poultry. All those countries have lower levels of resistance in humans.

I mentioned Denmark, and it is worth taking a moment to consider the Danish situation. The latest Danish disease surveillance report showed that, although the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the country’s pig population had decreased since the tighter restrictions came into effect, including the banning of cephalosporins, the level of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meats being imported into the country are higher than in its domestic meat. Nearly half the tested samples of chicken meat imported into Denmark in 2011 contained resistant bacteria. The Danish Government, quite rightly, have taken their concerns to Brussels, complaining that their national approach has been undermined by other EU states’ continued overuse of antibiotics.

Almost certainly, excessive antibiotic use on farms is linked to the intensive manner in which animals are kept. Improving animal health and welfare by limiting overcrowding and the worst excesses of factory farming must therefore become key components of the Government’s antibiotic resistance strategy. Disease prevention should be achieved through good hygiene, husbandry and housing, without recourse to the regular prophylactic use of antimicrobials—a point that has been made by two hon. Members. I recognise that factory farming interests have wielded enormous influence on Government policy for many years and that any move to restrict the use of antibiotics today will be fiercely resisted by them.