Antibiotics reports spark debate in farm industry

Campaigners pushing for a dramatic reduction in farm antibiotics use have set out a series of recommendations that they claim would reduce consumption in the dairy, pig and poultry sectors.

The Alliance to Save our Antibiotics (ASOA), of which the Soil Association, Sustain and Compassion in World Farming are key members, has published three reports that describe measures it believes would cut farmers’ requirement for antibiotics.

See also: Antibiotic use in livestock down but more to do

But farm groups have questioned a number of the assertions, arguing that some are based on outdated information and others have already been implemented.

Dairy recommendations

The report says antibiotics use in dairy farming has “dangerous implications” because some of the drugs used are particularly important in treating human infections.

Wiping a dairy cows teat

© Anthea Ktching

To address the problem, it recommends a greater move to selective dry-cow therapy, with every cow getting a teat seal, and only animals known to have problems with infection receiving antibiotics.

It also suggests a switch to higher-welfare systems, ensuring cows have access to pasture.

It points to a report by the European Food Safety Agency (Efsa) saying “zero grazing has a detrimental effect on cow health and welfare”.

More generally, the alliance calls for farmers to focus their efforts on maximising herd health and welfare, rather than focus on milk yield. Cows should be bred for robustness, rather than for high levels of production.

Dairy industry reaction

“Large parts of the dairy sector are already implementing selective dry-cow therapy. Dairy UK and the British Cattle Veterinary Association have widely promoted the concept through their MilkSure initiative.

“It is also a requirement for all Arla producers under the Arlagarden assurance scheme and anyone supplying a retailer is likely to be facing similar obligations.

“The Efsa report referenced by ASOA was compiled in 2009 using cross-European data and does not reflect modern British housed herds, for which there is no evidence of poorer health. In fact, many are achieving mastitis and lameness levels well below the national average.

“The report also criticises breeding regimes, but the formula for the profitable lifetime index [PLI] breeding tool has been weighted towards health and welfare traits for years – we are already seeing the results coming through in improved longevity in today’s cows.”

Amy Jackson, Nuffield scholar and communications consultant for Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (Ruma)

Pigs recommendations

The report recommends a move to higher-welfare production systems, with lower stocking densities, where animals are bred for health to reduce the need for antibiotics. It also favours production on smaller or outdoor farms.

Piglets in a straw yard

© Tim Scrivener/Rex/Shutterstock

It states: “If pigs are confined indoors, it should be on deep straw bedding, rather than barren indoor systems, as these provide enrichment – reducing the risk of tail-biting and ear and flank chewing – and also improve air quality by reducing noxious odours.”

Increasing the age of weaning could also cut the need for antibiotics, argues the report, as early-weaned piglets are more like to suffer from diarrhoea.

“Regulators and industry should encourage a move to a minimum weaning age of 35 to 40 days.”

Pig industry reaction

It is not production systems, but the level of use and misuse of antibiotics that is the major factor – and this is not necessarily linked to farm scale or system.

“One-third of our production is RSPCA assured, so has lower stocking densities in any case. And 40% of the sow herd is outdoors/free farrowed – therefore having more space. About 60% of finisher pigs and 90% of the sows kept indoors are also already kept on straw.

“A move to later weaning to potentially reduce antibiotics use has to be weighed up against other potential effects of later weaning, such as reduced sow welfare due to prolonged suckling, increased cost to the farmer due to reduced efficiency and greater environmental effects.

“We welcome ASOA’s efforts to support producers to minimise antibiotics use, but advice needs to be set against current best practice.”

Dr Zoe Davies, chief executive of the National Pig Association

Poultry recommendations

The report acknowledges that recent efforts to reduce total antibiotic use in the UK poultry industry have been successful, but claims British farmers are “still overusing antibiotics in comparison with poultry producers in other European countries”.

Flock of free-range broilers outside

© Tim Scrivener

The alliance suggests the industry should cut use from about 50mg/kg of meat to 20mg/kg within five years and reduce stocking density to 25kg/sq m (or 12.5 birds/sq m), compared with the current standard of 38kg/sq m.

It also calls for slower-growing breeds to be used “as these are generally healthier”. A move to organic production would also help.

Poultry industry reaction

“There are objectives we agree with, but it does feel as if they are trying to get their views [on free-range and organic systems] into the antibiotics story.

“We have already ended routine mass-medication of flocks, but it concerns me that we are now getting into calls for a target use of 20mg/kg PCU. I would like to see the science behind that target.

“Reducing stocking densities from the indoor standard of 38kg/sq m to 25kg/sq m would present a huge cost to the industry and result in a huge increase in supermarket prices – and that’s accepting it is even feasible.”

Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council