RUMA response to BBC Panorama episode ‘Antibiotics Crisis'

RUMA (Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance) has responded to a BBC Panorama programme examining farming’s role in the ‘antibiotics crisis’, shown on 23 May 2016, agreeing that while action is critical, the debate needs a ‘One Health’ context.

RUMA chairman Gwyn Jones said the farming industry fully recognised concerns about growing resistance to antibiotics, but it was important to remember that resistance in humans is largely attributed to human medical use with a recent study confirming farm animal use could be responsible for as few as one in every 370 clinical cases. 

He said: “Despite this, the farming industry and those looking after the health of companion animals must ‘do their bit’ to control spread of resistance. This is why RUMA announced last week it is setting up an industry task force to look at how meaningful targets can be developed to replace, reduce and refine antibiotic use in UK agriculture.”

Addressing some of the specific points raised in the programme, Mr Jones said UK farming was already focused on reducing use of antibiotics deemed critically important for human medicine (CIAs). 

“Fluoroquinolone and 3rd and 4th generation cephalosporin sales into farming, which are CIAs, are already very low in the UK, representing just 0.9% of the total,” he explained. 

“While cephalosporins can be prescribed for use as intra-mammary treatments in cows to protect against or treat mastitis, a painful inflammation, these are mostly 1st or 2nd generation and not classified as critically important. The 3rd and 4th generation cephalosporins comprise less than 9% of the total prescriptions of intra-mammary products, and this has been stable over the past two years. 

“In 2012 the poultry meat industry introduced a voluntary ban on the use of 3rd and 4th generation cephalosporins, and a commitment to reduce the use of fluoroquinolones which has since led to an overall reduction. The 3rd and 4th generation cephalosporins authorised for use in pigs cannot be given in-feed or in-water and are only ever administered to individual animals. 

“Furthermore, despite colistin making up less than 0.2% of UK antibiotic use in UK livestock, RUMA announced a voluntary restriction in December 2015 that it should only be used as the last effective antibiotic available for treating the sick animal,” added Mr Jones.

He said RUMA welcomed the recognition that the withdrawal of some antibiotics from agricultural use could have wide-ranging impacts on welfare and the price of food. “Interventions are not without consequence. Bacterial infections and associated inflammation undoubtedly cause pain and discomfort to animals. The treatment of such infections is a requirement of both national and EU animal welfare legislation and all vets are under oath to protect the health and welfare of the animals in their care,” explained Mr Jones.

“Any benefits for public health need to be clear, and balanced against the impact of restricted antibiotic use on animal welfare, the economic viability of our farms and overall UK food security. Badly handled, there is a real risk we will end up importing produce which increases risk to human health if our own, highly-regulated industry is rendered unviable through arbitrary curbs. 

“The focus needs to be on appropriate animal husbandry practice and nutrition with a focus on protecting animals from disease thus removing the need for them to be treated with antimicrobials in the first place.”

And while it was true different sectors and farming systems had much to learn from each other by way of useful reduction techniques, the ‘intensive vs extensive’ farming debate was misleading. “Intensity is not a factor in antimicrobial resistance and as indicated in the programme, there is no evidence that extensive farming systems or those with low antibiotic use experience less prevalence or maintenance of bacterial strains of potential concern to public health.

“As the UK government states, resistance is a natural biological phenomenon which can be increased and accelerated by the various factors we are all – in human and animal medicine – trying to address,” said Mr Jones. 

“We use animal medicines to reduce the impact of disease on animal welfare. The safety of people who consume food from treated animals is assessed and the necessary controls on withdrawal built in when products are authorised for use as veterinary medicines in these animals. The responsible use of these medicines is a matter the industry has been focused on for nearly 20 years through RUMA.”