EU not on track to reduce livestock antibiotics, say campaigners

“We believe there is a high level of ambition in EU policy actions to reduce the use of antibiotics in livestock farming,” Roxane Feller, secretary general of AnimalhealthEurope, an organisation representing the animal medicine industry, told EURACTIV.

EU and national policies are not ambitious enough to reach the bloc’s goal of halving antibiotic use in livestock farming by 2030, according to campaigners, who warn that without sufficient action, humans will also be at risk from antimicrobial resistance.

Excessive use of antibiotics in recent years – not only in humans but also in animal healthcare – has led some bacteria to develop antimicrobial resistance (AMR), meaning antibiotics become less effective against infections.

The global COVID-19 pandemic “has shown again that the progressive development of antimicrobial resistance is an immense risk,” Sascha Müller-Kränner, director of the NGO Environmental Action Germany, said at a recent event.

The European Commission has already identified the fight against AMR as a priority. In its food flagship policy, the Farm to Fork Strategy, it has set the goal of halving EU sales of antimicrobials for farmed animals by 2030.

This is “a good target, an ambitious target – reaching this would be our wish,” Reinhild Benning, agriculture and food campaigner at Environmental Action Germany, said.

“But it is not that easy,” he continued.

Recent studies, Benning warned, project an almost 7% rise in the use of antibiotics in Europe by 2030, driven by increased use in livestock farming.

A list that is too listless?

As one instrument set to reduce AMR in animals, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) recently tabled a list of antimicrobials that should be reserved only for human use.

The Commission has thrown its weight behind the agency’s recommendations.

While welcoming the step to drawing up such a list, Benning said the EMA’s recommendations did not go far enough.

“In this list, I am missing a human medicine angle and an environmental medicine angle,” she said, adding the list was not drawn up with a so-called ‘One Health’ approach in mind, that is, the idea of tackling human, animal, and environmental health in an integrated way.

Echoing criticism from MEPs, Benning called to expand the list of antimicrobials to include those recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) but not taken up by the EMA.

However, not everyone shares the campaigners’ view. “We believe there is a high level of ambition in EU policy actions to reduce the use of antibiotics in livestock farming,” Roxane Feller, secretary-general of AnimalhealthEurope, an organisation representing the animal medicine industry, told EURACTIV.

She pointed out that a recent report by the EU’s medicine agency (EMA) had already found an overall decline in veterinary antibiotics sales by 42% in sales of veterinary antibiotics between 2011 and 2020.

Feller also added her organisation would “accept the scientific advice of the EMA” when it comes to antibiotics reserved for human use, adding it was “in line with the EU’s One Health approach to addressing the challenge of antimicrobial resistance.

MEPs slam new recommendations on antimicrobials reserved for human use

European lawmakers did not hold back in their criticism of the new European Medicines Agency (EMA) recommendations for antimicrobials to be reserved for human use at a committee meeting on Tuesday (15 March).

Reducing the need to use

Meanwhile, the question remains how and to what extent farms can reduce the use of antimicrobials and to what extent they are indispensable for animal health.

“Working completely without antibiotics treatment – this is important to stress – is not possible,” German agriculture ministry official Marcus Schick said at an event.

In the case of “bacterial infections that lead to pain, suffering and damages for animals,” they need to be treated, he argued, adding such diseases could threaten human health as well through the food products produced from the animals.

“We prefer to focus on reducing the need to use antibiotics rather than just looking at reducing use,” Feller argued. At the same time, as there are no existing alternatives for treating bacterial infections to date, antibiotics will “remain indispensable (…) to protect animal health and welfare,” she added.

Benning, meanwhile, called for a more structural approach, arguing one-third of the global rise in antibiotics use was due to a transition from peasant to industrial farming, where “antibiotics are often treated as a production input.”

To effectively reduce antimicrobial use, the farming system thus needs to change, she concluded.

Commission confirms support for EMA's advice on antimicrobials for humans only

Health commissioner Stella Kyriakides reaffirmed support for the European Medicines Agency (EMA)’s set of recommendations for antimicrobials to be reserved for humans only despite criticism over the non-inclusion of colistin, an antibiotic used in veterinary medicine.

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Alice Taylor]

Subscribe to our newsletters