Why antibiotic resistance must be tackled at the farm, too

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Monique goyens

Monique Goyens [The Lisbon Council/Flickr]

25,000 Europeans die each year from antibiotic resistance. Many more suffer from its consequences. On European Antibiotic Awareness Day, the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) is calling on consumers to go easy on antibiotics when struck by sickness, writes Monique Goyens.

Monique Goyens is Director General of The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC).

Ebola is making the headlines these days. But antibiotic resistance deserves as much media attention, if not more.

How did we get there? The more antibiotics used, the higher the risk bacteria become resistant. In the long run, antibiotics could no longer work when we need them. No wonder we must think twice before rushing to antibiotics. But this should also apply to the animals which will end up on our plates.

Farm animals are often given antibiotics even when not sick. Though we all agree prevention is better than cure, it should not be an excuse to administer antibiotics to a perfectly healthy animal. Such misuse and overuse spurs resistance, which can affect us in several ways.

Humans can contract resistant bacteria as they travel via air, contact and water. These bacteria may also transfer their resistance to other bacteria present in our bodies.

Food is one of the contamination channels. And we are not talking about meat only. Resistant bacteria can contaminate your fresh fruit and vegetables via the fertilising manure spread on crops. Touching any food after handling contaminated raw meat is enough to spread bacteria.

Cross-contamination goes beyond food – doorknobs, chopping boards, and any other surface you touch are vulnerable. This is why washing our hands often and cooking meat thoroughly is crucial.

But what we do at home to shield ourselves from resistant bugs is just a drop in the ocean. The biggest task is at farm level.

What do the laws say? While antibiotic usage for growth promotion was banned in the EU in 2006, antibiotics can still be administered to animals to prevent sickness, though the whole herd is healthy. The new legislative proposals (European Commission proposals on veterinary medicines and medicated feed, released on September 10, 2014) under discussion in the Council and European Parliament are too vague and should clearly prohibit antibiotic use on healthy animals.

Member states are free to set their own rules voluntarily. Some perform better than others. In Denmark, the amount of antimicrobials – including antibiotics – given to farmed chicken slumped by 90% in 13 years. In Norway, vaccination and improved fish health management helped antibiotic use in fish farming to practically disappear in less than 20 years.

However, how inspiring these success stories are, we cannot afford national measures any longer. We need strong EU-wide rules – if not global action – if we are serious about fighting antibiotic resistance. The issue knows no borders.

What solutions are needed? Farm animals consume more antibiotics than humans in the US, and the World Health Organisation suggests the same goes for the EU. No wonder farming practices need to be rethought. Better hygiene is a no-brainer. Decreasing stressful situations for animals, such as allocating them more space, can boost their immune system thus cutting the need for drugs.

At BEUC we are adamant that antibiotics should only be administered to sick animals, not healthy ones. The latter is still common practice today in the EU.

Veterinarians also have an important role to play in keeping animals healthy and therefore avoiding the need for antibiotics in the first place. We believe vets’ right to both prescribe and sell antibiotics should be reconsidered. This is as much a question of ethics. Just imagine if your GP’s revenues depended on medication sales! We need to remove any economic incentive for them to overprescribe antibiotics.

We all need antibiotics which work. Especially those “critically important antibiotics” our health heavily relies upon to treat certain human conditions – e.g. strains of tuberculosis or meningitis. They must be highly restricted for livestock.

Is it all bad news? No, but we are in a serious hurry. If the situation remains unchanged, in a few years’ time, bacteria will have become so resistant to antibiotics that infections as minor as a finger cut could become highly risky again. Complex interventions such as surgery or chemotherapy, which rely on antibiotic efficacy, have already become more hazardous.

Current EU rules on antibiotics usage in livestock are completely off the mark. We cannot afford to stand still. The health of consumers is now in the hands of the Council and European Parliament. There is an opportunity to make the European Commission’s proposals more ambitious. We count on them to seize it.

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