From a literature review of 139 published, peer reviewed articles, experts at the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance concluded that there is “sufficient evidence showing that the world needs to start curtailing the quantities of antimicrobials used in agriculture now”.
Only seven (5%) of the papers it found argued that there was no link between antibiotic consumption in animals and resistance in humans; meanwhile 100 (72%) found evidence of a link.
Its study Antimicrobials in agriculture and the environment then assessed how taxation, subsidy reductions and regulatory change could wean the livestock industry off antibiotics.
The group, chaired by the economist Jim O’Neill, said a “good starting point” would be a target to reduce use to an average of less than 50 milligrams of antibiotics per kilo of livestock. The UK uses a shade over that whilst Cypriot farmers currently use 400mg/kg.
The legally-binding targets would see antibiotic use fall by around two-thirds in the EU, according to the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics. As FoodNavigator previously reported, the campaign group has called for an EU target to reduce drug use by 50% and 80% by 2020 and 2025 respectively.
However, in its paper, published today, the review’s team also noted the important role of public awareness and education.
The authors highlighted how consumer pressure had already seen several companies impose voluntary guidelines and targets to reduce antibiotic use in their supply chains.
In 2013, sales of antibiotic-free chicken increased by 34% in the US – a country where 86% of consumers want to buy meat free of antibiotics and 60% say they are willing to pay more for it. Mintel research in Britain has suggested that 47% of shoppers are concerned about the use of antibiotic drugs in farming.
“These changes made by individual companies might be among the most practical short-term shifts to reduce use, at least in agriculture,” said O’Neill and his team.
“To support this effort, requirements to ensure that labelling makes reference to antibiotic use would improve consumer knowledge and help enable consumers to make a more informed choice.”
Antibiotic-free is 'too simplistic'
An antibiotic-free label would be too simplistic, they said, and might even incentivise farmers to withhold treatment if they feared the meat wouldn’t sell. "[It] may well be better to have a ‘responsible use of antibiotics’ label, or something similar”, they concluded.
This vague recommendation suggests that a solution will be far from easy to find. Emma Rose from the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics explained how the issues needed to be tackled downstream rather than “slapping a label on products”. She said a label was a distraction and pushed for a ban on routine preventative antibiotic use.
This didn’t mean public awareness was not important, she said. The new report suggested that an awareness campaign on antimicrobial resistance could run alongside the new labelling regime. Whether this could create long-term behaviour change is unclear, but if successful it would provide “excellent value for money”.
Low or no cost
O’Neill told reporters that the long-term price of meat won’t be affected by the changes proposed. However, there would be an initial transition cost.
Will that mean higher prices for meat? Not necessarily. The researchers reference a “growing” pool of evidence that undermines the economic argument for antibiotics used as growth promoters, for instance. The progress made by Holland and Denmark to cut antibiotic use whilst retaining competitiveness shows what can be done.
To carry on regardless could pose challenges to global food security, they said. “There is also a long-term risk to food production from overusing antibiotics in livestock in the form of rising resistance amongst animals, leading to higher mortality and morbidity.”
It would risk missing the systemic problem, which is one of routine misuse of antibiotics in order to compensate for the often crowded conditions of intensive systems, where disease outbreaks are more common and harder to control. Introducing labels risks ... turning meat products from animals raised without antibiotics into premium products – rather than the absolute norm.
The report is available here.