Industry bodies have hit out at a pressure group after it called for a ban on an antibiotic used in poultry production, claiming it risks human health.
The Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics wrote to the government asking for an EU-wide ban on fluoroquinolones, a family of antimicrobials used to treat camplylobacter, salmonella and E coli.
The pressure group, made up of the Soil Association, Sustain, and Compassion in World Farming, claims resistance to the antibiotic is on the increase as it becomes more widely used in the UK - and this resistance is being transferred to humans.
The letter, addressed to farming minister David Heath, said urgent action was needed as fluoroquinolones are one of only two types of antibiotics that can be used to treat campylobacter infections in humans.
The amount of fluoroquinolones purchased by vets in the UK has increased by 70% in a decade to 2.09t in 2011, official statistics show.
A ban would bring the EU in line with the USA, Denmark, Finland and Australia, which do not use the drug in poultry.
"Since it is clear that voluntary action by the industry has been ineffective in reducing fluoroquinolone use, we now call upon you to work with the EU Commission and other member states to prohibit the use of these critically important antibiotics in poultry production," the letter said.
However, the British Veterinary Association disputed the science and warned that political measures to reduce antimicrobial resistance in Europe and the UK are in danger of becoming kneejerk reactions.
"We know from the USA and Denmark that banning or restricting the use of certain antimicrobials in certain species has not reduced the incidence of resistance to certain organisms in humans," said BVA president Peter Jones. "Banning the veterinary use of antimicrobials could have a severe impact on animal health and welfare without achieving the desired impact in humans."
The British Poultry Council and the NFU have also criticised the alliance's campaign. While the poultry industry agrees with the overall objective to promote responsible use, it does not agree with an outright ban on fluoroquinolones, as they are needed to treat particular infections that damage the health and welfare of birds.
"Only relatively small amounts of fluoroquinolones are now prescribed for poultry in the UK and rarely for flocks producing meat for consumption," they said.
Campylobacter, which is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK, affects more than 350,000 people a year. Chickens are the source of 50-80% of cases, according to the European Food Safety Authority.
"Most of the resistance to infections in humans in the UK is generated by human antibiotic medicines," said a DEFRA spokesman. "There is no evidence that antibiotics given to animals have caused any significant resistance to infections in humans in the UK."
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