Antibiotics on animal farms spread deadly pathogens, experts warn

The German Office of Consumer Protection and Food Security indicates the use of antibiotics in animal breeding has decreased. [Marianne Perdomo/Flickr]

The consistent use of antibiotics in animal farms in Germany are spreading antibiotic-resistant germs and causing experts to call for stricter measures against drugs. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The latest numbers from the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Security seem to be positive, showing an overall decrease in the use of antibiotics in animal breeding facilities.

In 2014, nearly 1,200 tonnes of medications were used in animal husbandry in Germany – around 15% less than the previous year. Compared to the first data collection in 2011, antibiotic use dropped by more than one-fourth.

But according to many experts, the recorded decrease conceals the fact that more and more reserve antibiotics are being administered on animal farms – medications, which are of “great importance for the treatment of specific infections in humans”, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

As a result, Germany is still among the top consumers in the EU when it comes to the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry.

Reserve antibiotics in particular, which are proven to be 40-times more effective than the usual antibiotics, are cause for concern among experts.

“Reserve antibiotics have no business being in our stalls – they should be reserved for use in human medicine,” warned Friedrich Ostendorff, an agriculture analyst for the Green Party. These medications are still being administered on a large scale in animal fattening facilities to compensate for structural and hygienic deficiencies, Ostendorff pointed out.

WHO warns of increasingly resistant pathogens

The WHO has long been pushing to limit antibiotic use in animals and humans to cases in which they are really needed. But there is still hardly a difference between the forbidden practice of prophylaxis – precautionary administering of antibiotics – and permitted metaphylactic use of such medications by administering them to all animals in the stall in the event of illness.

Meanwhile, the German Institute for Risk Analysis (BfR) indicated that whether antibiotics are used for prophylactic or metaphylactic purposes, there is hardly any difference in resistance development.

Regionally, there is a significant discrepancy in the use of antibiotics in animal fattening operations across Germany.

In the area between Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westfalia, the volume administered is still the highest in the country but it has decreased from 703 to 506 tonnes.

In Brandenburg, on the other hand, the amount used has increased by 15 tonnes. Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) attributed this to the fact that a number of very large fattening units have started up in the region.

With stricter reporting requirements, stronger monitoring and targeted research, the German government hopes to stop the spread of highly dangerous disease pathogens and has come up with a new strategy.

>>Read: German government poised to tackle growing antibiotic resistance

Meanwhile, critics view the growing use of some medications as alarm bells, indicating that the strategy does not go far enough.

“Despite Germany’s Antibiotic Resistances Strategy (DART), resistances are continuing to spread,” warned health analyst Kordula Schulz-Asche from the Greens.

What is needed, she said, are binding reduction targets for antibiotic use, a fixed timeline for implementing the measures and stronger controls. Otherwise, by 2050, 10 million people worldwide could die of infection due to multi-resistant pathogens.

The topic of antibiotic resistance is not only high up on Germany’s political agenda, it was also an issue at the G7 Summit meeting in Elmau. There, the G7 countries agreed to restrict the use of antibiotics to prevent resistances.

But agriculture expert Reinhild Benning from BUND said these resolutions are still too vague. “So far, Minister Christian Schmidt has been idly looking in Brussels’ direction, where there is even a risk that existing rules on antibiotics could be softened,” Benning warned.

Rapporteur in the European Parliament’s Environment Committee, Martin Häusling, said he would pay special attention to how the use of antibiotics will be regulated.

Until something happens in this regard, it will remain difficult for consumers in Germany to find meat products manufactured on farms without antibiotics. Even organic manufacturers are allowed to administer antibiotics to their livestock.

Only products certified “NOP” from the United States are truly antibiotic-free. If animals on such farms fall ill, they are not given antibiotics but are only administered homeopathic remedies.

Antimicrobial agents – such as antibiotics – have dramatically reduced the number of deaths from infectious diseases during the 70 years since their introduction.

However, through overuse and misuse of these agents, many micro-organisms have become resistant to them.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a global threat. It happens when organisms are able to survive medicines aimed to destroy them.

Bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics, viruses to antivirals and parasites to drugs like antimalarials.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says 150,000 deaths a year are caused by multi-drug resistant tuberculosis.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control estimates that AMR results each year in 25,000 deaths in Europe and related costs of over €1.5 billion in healthcare expenses and productivity losses.

The situation is all the more serious because antimicrobials have become an essential tool for modern medicine. Many surgical operations could not be performed without them.

EURACTIV Germany (German language): EU-Debatte: Antibiotika im Tierfutter verantwortlich für EHEC-Seuche?

German Health Ministry (German language): Deutsche Antibiotika-Resistenzstrategie (DART)

German Institute for Risk Analysis (German language): Informationen zum Antibiotikaeinsatz

German Office of Consumer Protection and Food Security (German language):

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