Resistance to antibiotics caused by their overuse in livestock and humans is increasing. It’s estimated that if the world doesn’t radically change how antibiotics are used by 2050, antimicrobial resistance will kill more people than cancer does today.
A recent report in the Lancet revealed that “more than 1.2 million people died worldwide in 2019 from infections caused by bacteria resistant to antibiotics. This is more than the annual death toll from malaria or Aids.” Worldwide, about two-thirds of all antibiotics are used in farm animals, not people. Much of this use is routine and enables the keeping of farmed animals in cruel, cramped and stressful conditions where diseases spread easily.
The WHO has stated that: “Antibiotic resistance is rising to dangerously high levels in all parts of the world… Without urgent action, we are heading for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill.”
Unprepared for new EU legislation
In response to this significant threat, the EU adopted new legislation in 2018 that bans the routine use of antibiotics in farm animals. This much-needed legislation comes into force throughout the EU today (28 January 2022), which means the industry has had some three years to prepare for the change.
Yet, Compassion in World Farming EU is concerned that many Member States and the EU livestock sector have still not done the preparation needed to meet these new standards. And by delaying these reforms, we are playing a dangerous game with human and animal health, which could have disastrous consequences.
These new regulations mandate, among other decrees, that “antimicrobial medicinal products shall not be applied routinely nor used to compensate for poor hygiene, inadequate animal husbandry or lack of care or to compensate for poor farm management” (article 107.1 of Regulation 2019/6). However, very few countries have incorporated the key reforms to animal health and husbandry practices that would make it possible to comply with the new legislation and reduce the use of antibiotics to an acceptable level.
This view is supported by a new report released today by the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), which concludes that antibiotics will continue to be used across the EU to compensate for inadequate animal husbandry and poor hygiene throughout Europe, in spite of the new legislation. The finding followed an examination of current ongoing husbandry practices, such as the early weaning of piglets, the use of very fast-growing chickens and the use of very high stocking densities.
For example, research shows that when piglets are weaned early, they often suffer diarrhea, which must be treated with substantial use of antimicrobials. And because the livestock sector continues to wean piglets early, farmers are unable to meet the new standards set by this EU legislation.
A similar situation is visible in the use of fast-growing breeds of meat chickens. Dutch data show that standard fast-growing birds receive substantially more antimicrobials per bird than slower-growing birds1 2, so the continued use of fast-growing breeds means that similar amounts of antimicrobials will continue to be administered.
Finally, the continuation of intensive veal production in specific countries is also at odds with the new EU legislation. According to an Opinion by the European Medicines Agency and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), “the disease risk is high, and there is very high on-farm use of antimicrobial agents” in intensive veal farms. If such production continues at the current rate, it stands to reason that antimicrobial use will also continue unabated.
Time to act now
Member States must act now to ensure the future health and wellbeing of both animals and people. In order to comply with this new legislation, we need to move to ‘health-oriented systems’ for rearing animals: systems in which good health is inherent in the farming method rather than being propped up by routine use of antimicrobials.
Health-oriented systems are those in which farmed animals do not experience overcrowding – which is a risk factor for the spread and development of infectious disease – and in which animals are able to engage in natural behaviors, decreasing stress, which is another risk factor. These systems would not permit the early weaning of piglets, since this increases stress, and they would make the use of fast-growing breeds impossible.
For the EU to meet these standards, shifts toward health-oriented systems are essential. Along with these, the promotion of plant-rich diets represents a crucial step along with the reduction in the numbers of farmed animals and the move to more extensive production systems that would prevent the rise of antibiotic resistance, safeguarding both animal and human health.
We must remember that the preservation of public health relies on the preservation of animal health – the two are intrinsically linked – and this legislation is vital to protecting both.