The threat of AMR
Antibiotics are valuable tools to treat bacterial disease in humans, pets and farm animals. However, antimicrobial resistance (AMR), or specifically antibiotic resistant bacteria, is a significant health threat. Resistance to antibiotics occurs naturally in bacteria but their development increases with any antibiotic use – the more antibiotics are used, the greater the chance of resistance occurring.
Antibiotics are important in the treatment of bacterial infections in both humans and animals. However, at a global level the disproportionate use of antibiotics in agriculture, including for growth promotion purposes alongside lack of veterinary prescription control, are of continuing concern to society.
In the UK, regulation is more stringent: growth promotion has been banned since 2006 and use of antibiotics to treat farm animals is well below the global average. Despite this, antibiotic resistant bacteria can still be found in farm animals and sometimes on uncooked produce. We all have a duty to minimise the risk of AMR development in agriculture and any possible spread to human populations. It is important that we in the food industry play our part.
AMR is a One Health issue. This mean that tackling antibiotic resistance is everyone’s responsibility as the phenomenon spans humans, animals and the environment. The UK Government took an early lead on the issue through its AMR Review in 2015/16, led by Lord Jim O’Neill, and continues to advocate firm action globally.
The EU Commission has responded to the threat of AMR by putting in place legislative changes and targets to drive reductions in antibiotic use in agriculture. Parallel to this, the UK has taken significant voluntary action on the issue – so much so that use in farm animals has halved in five years leaving the UK with the fifth-lowest sales in Europe.
Critical to this progress has been sector-specific targets which support the responsible use of antibiotics to treat animal disease but aim to eliminate unnecessary or inappropriate use. These were identified by the UK farming industry in 2017, a process which was facilitated by the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA). RUMA published a review of progress in November 2020, alongside new targets which focus on reducing the need for antibiotics through improved animal health underpinned by enhanced animal management, clinical research and knowledge dissemination.
Action in the UK food supply chain
AMR is already a high-profile issue for the UK food supply chain. Industry working groups e.g. the British Retail Consortium Group on Antimicrobial Resistance, have been in place since the issue emerged. Major retailers, manufacturers and processors have long had policies regarding antibiotic use in place within their supply chains.
However, a co-ordinated approach from farm to fork, delivered with support and transparency, is a key building block to successful stewardship. Working individually, there is a risk that individual organisations will set substantially different policies, leading to mixed messages and unintended burdens on our supply base and the farming and veterinary community. By working together, we are able to harness our collective power to influence activity and support best practice.
That is why the UK food supply chain has been working together through FIIA since 2018. Together, we aim to identify and implement common principles to help reduce, refine or replace antibiotic use, and tackle AMR.