Rebecca Veale, NFU animal health adviser, explains why the sensible use of antibiotics is vital for the future of animal health and food production.
Veterinary medicines are used for the same reason as human medicines – to prevent, treat and control disease. Farmers are legally responsible for the health and welfare of their stock so, while veterinary medicines are expensive, they are a key tool in ensuring this is not compromised.
They never replace good husbandry and management and many of our standards, such as Red Tractor, which a high proportion of UK farmers adhere to, incorporate all these elements.
Farming gets a bad press when it comes to this subject because it’s an easy target, and also because some of the poor practice that used to happen. However, there is a lower percentage of medicines used on farmed animals today.
For example, in 1986, 70 per cent of sales were for the livestock sector. By 2014 it was just under 43 per cent, with over 54 per cent of usage by the companion animal sector. The data includes vaccination sales, which are now much higher than they used to be.
Some people also find it really tempting to compare how we operate with other countries, but the truth is this is a near impossible task because different farming systems pose a variety of challenges to animals and vary greatly. The reality is that in the majority of instances, medicines are used when an animal is sick (known as metaphylactic), and occasionally they’re used preventively when disease risk is high (known as prophylactic).
Responsible use is taken really seriously by farmers and there has been a huge recognition for the antibiotics that are critically important in human medicine. For instance, antibiotics including third and fourth generation cephalosporins are no longer used in broiler production. Other important antibiotics like colistin are only used as a last resort. It is also illegal to use antibiotics as growth promoters.
EU legislation for veterinary medicines is in the early stages of change, but the aim is to tighten up efforts to eliminate bad practices and get rid of some of the administrative burdens which inhibits drug development. The NFU is working with its friends in Europe to ensure that the UK perspective is understood and considered.
In this country, we also have the benefits of a great resource in RUMA which we, as the NFU, are part of. RUMA promotes responsible use and its 26 members have created and regularly updatedand a comprehensive set of guidelines over the years. The fact that most of industry is involved and supports the work of RUMA highlights the value of what has been achieved.
And things aren’t standing still. Recently RUMA held a conference with the Veterinary Medicines Directorate and brought together human health professionals and the agricultural industry. The 'One Health' approach and the challenge of antibiotic resistance are here to stay and I think we’ll increasingly have to defend how we use medicines in farming.
But to do that we have a robust system, a positive attitude and we have come a long way.