While antimicrobial resistance and its potential transmission to humans from farm animals is a concern, evidence suggests the risk of illness as a result is actually quite low. For instance, tests on resistance gene (ESBL) samples in Europe* indicate farm animal use is potentially associated with fewer than 1% of human clinical E. coli infections.”
* Wu and others (2013); SVARM 2014 (2015); DANMAP 2014 (2015); DANMAP 2015 (2016)
They are found on large and small farms, organic and conventional, and in pets and horses, because resistance happens naturally as bacteria defend themselves against attack; resistant bacteria millions of years old have been found in the ice caps.
Although this is often suggested in the popular media, it’s not farming systems but the level of use and misuse of antibiotics that is the major factor – and this is not necessarily linked to farm scale or system. As mentioned above, resistant bacteria are found on conventional and organic farms alike, and some highly productive systems are aiming to become virtually antibiotic-free in the next few years – subject to being able to maintain their high health and welfare standards.
Sometimes presented as ‘routine’ use to prevent disease, prophylactic treatment is widely debated and it’s clear that the term means different things to different groups. There is, however, a widely held and justifiable belief, by both medics and vets, that controlled intervention to prevent the outbreak and further spread of disease, based on sound professional examination and advice, is better than cure.
Far from the way it can be portrayed, oral treatment of groups of animals through their feed (or mass-medication) can be the most effective treatment method. For example, outdoor sows can be stressed by catching and injecting and as they drink rainwater, application through water can risk under-medication. Large groups of poultry could equally be stressed by catching, especially if a course involving daily treatment is needed. In-feed medication may therefore provide the most practicable option in some cases.
RUMA Position Statement
The preventative use of antibiotics in farm animals
Government UK One Health Report
Joint report on human and animal antibiotic use, sales and resistance, 2013
Dr Georgina Crayford, NPA explains
Antibiotic usage on pig farms
Lord O’Neill review on antimicrobial resistance
Tackling drug-resistant infections globally: Final report and recommendations
NOAH reaction to publication of O’Neill report
NOAH’s response to final O’Neill report