Antibiotic use will be curbed by knee-jerk legislation unless farmers can demonstrate they are using them more responsibly, scientists have warned.

That was the message at an international conference in Edinburgh, organised jointly by the Moredun Research Institute and NFU Scotland to tackle head-on the threat of EU restrictions in the light of antibiotic resistance in animals and humans.

And although farmers were advised to use antibiotics selectively and effectively, they were also told that improving hygiene and biosecurity to minimise the risk of disease occurring in the first place was equally important. There was also a need for different management approaches and new products, including vaccines and diagnostics.

NFUS president Nigel Miller said: “The EU policy machine is considering sheltering some key antibiotics from veterinary use to protect their efficacy in human medicine, yet work at Glasgow Vet School demonstrates no link between on-farm use and the development of resistance in human pathogens. However, the reality is that this issue is now driven by politics.

“Scotland is a world leader in developing farm veterinary health planning and there is an opportunity now for vets and farmers to take this to the next level and be proactive in implementing management systems, vaccine programmes and monitoring to squeeze disease episodes out of production cycles.”

Moredun scientific director Julie Fitzpatrick indicated that the use of antibiotics in livestock may become even more important in future.

Prof Fitzpatrick added: “If, for food security reasons, we pursue a policy of sustainable intensification it would involve using animals more efficiently, possibly using less land mass and optimising grazing patterns. Presumably diseases are more likely to transmit under those circumstances so we need to be even more careful that we use antibiotics for the best possible reasons.”

Delegates heard that 25,000 people died from antimicrobial resistance every year throughout the EU but John Fitzgerald, secretary general of the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture alliance (RUMA) questioned the role of antibiotics in farm livestock is the problem.

He said: “25,000 deaths in humans is an accurate number but how many, if any, of those deaths were related to the fact that an antimicrobial produced in an animal led to resistant bacteria being transferred to a human, which affected the clinical treatment of that human is a figure which no one really knows. I’ve heard 100 of that 25,000 but I don’t know the basis of that.”

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