The increase in the number of resistant E.coli cases in the UK is “almost certainly due” to the level of antibiotic use on farms, a report by the Soil Association has said.
The organisation, promoting consumption of organic products in the UK, said its ‘E. coli superbugs on farms and food’ report provided “overwhelming evidence that the excessive use of antibiotics on UK livestock farms is contributing to the rise of drug resistance in human E. coli infections”.
The Soil Association calculated that farm use of antibiotics per animal was at its highest-ever level in 2010, 18% higher than in 2000, linking the use of modern cephalosporin antibiotics, which has increased six-fold in the same period, to a new type of “extremely resistant” and “more virulent” extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL) E. coli, nearly three times as likely to kill as other strains.
Richard Young, Soil Association policy advisor and co-author of the report, said: “Just about every non-organic chicken in the UK is still routinely put on antibiotics from the day it is hatched. The UK does not have an effective strategy for addressing the rising levels of antibiotic resistance on farms and food, and is the only EU country still allowing antibiotics to be advertised to farmers.”
Dr Ron Daniels from the UK Sepsis Trust, supported the report, saying: “It is now certain that agricultural, veterinary and food industry use of antibiotics – which represents one half of all antibiotic use in the U.K – impacts on antibiotic resistance in animals which in turn impacts on antibiotic resistance in humans. Antibiotic resistance is developing faster than we can develop new antibiotics – if we don’t act now, we will rapidly arrive at a situation where we are unable to treat some bacterial infections.”
Professor Peter Collignon, director of the infectious diseases unit and microbiology department at Canberra Hospital, Australia, who wrote the foreword of the report added: “It is very important that we stop multi-resistant bacteria developing in food animals to prevent their spread to people. To do that we need to address the issue of inappropriate use of antibiotics in farming, just as much as in the health profession.”
Dr Dai Grove-White from the School of Veterinary Science, Liverpool University, also expressed its support, adding: “It is essential that all the relevant stakeholders namely governments, farmers, veterinary surgeons, retailers and consumers participate in this debate to ensure the protection of both human and animal health and allow farming to rise to the inevitable challenges of the next 50 years without jeopardising human health.”
The Soil Association recommended phasing out the preventative use of antibiotics in healthy animals and halving the overall use of antibiotics on farms within five years, moving towards higher welfare and less intensive production systems “which have the potential to reduce the use of antibiotics in farming significantly”, reducing the use of modern cephalosporins and fluoroquinolones and prohibiting off-label use, and banning the advertising of antibiotics to farmers in the UK. “Any advertisement to veterinary surgeons should be purely factual and not emotive in any way,” it added.