New antibiotic rules contain ‘loopholes and weaknesses’

New rules have come into force for ending routine preventative antibiotic use in farming, but campaigners want the UK government to go further.

From Friday 17 May, prophylactic use of farm antibiotics is being restricted to “exceptional circumstances”, where the risk of an infection or of an infectious disease is “very high”.

The new legislation from the UK government bans the routine use of antibiotics on farm animals and their use “to compensate for poor hygiene, inadequate animal husbandry, or poor farm management practices”. The rules apply to England, Scotland and Wales.

See also: Lowest ever sales of farm antibiotics recorded in UK

However, campaign group Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, whose members include Sustain, the Soil Association and Compassion in World Farming have issued a joint statement accusing the government of deliberately weakening the rules in comparison to EU legislation.

According to the groups, there are “loopholes and weaknesses” in the legislation and how it is interpreted may allow the overuse of antibiotics on farms to continue.

EU rules ‘watered down’

Unlike the EU, the Westminster government has refused to ban the practice of feeding prophylactic or preventative antibiotics to groups of animals where no animals have been diagnosed as sick.

Cóilín Nunan, of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, said: “Some of the new rules on farm antibiotic use are welcome and long overdue.

“Unfortunately, the government has deliberately weakened the legislation, in comparison to the EU’s, and this will allow some poorly run farms to keep on feeding large groups of animals antibiotics, even when no disease is present.

“We are also concerned the ban on using antibiotics to compensate for inadequate animal husbandry and poor farm management practices may not be properly implemented.”

The alliance is urging the UK government to set more ambitious targets to cut antibiotic use in farming and ban group prophylaxis with antibiotics, introduce mandatory antibiotic-use data collection and set new, more ambitious targets for reducing farm antibiotic use.

Currently, about 75% of UK farm antibiotic use is still for group treatments. Targets should be set to reduce group treatments to less than 30% by 2030 and cut overall farm antibiotic use by 40% by 2030, the alliance says.

VMD response

In response, a spokesperson for the Veterinary Medicines Directorate said: “We do not support the routine use of antibiotics, including where antibiotics are used to compensate for inadequate farming practices.

“However, a blanket ban of prophylaxis could be harmful to animal health and welfare, while also increasing the risk of diseases spreading.”