Europe’s ‘shocking’ antibiotic problem slammed

By Oscar Rousseau

- Last updated on GMT

Spain uses 100 times more antibiotics per head of livestock than Norway does
Spain uses 100 times more antibiotics per head of livestock than Norway does

Related tags Antibiotics Sweden Norway United kingdom Beef Lamb Pork Poultry

The failure of many European countries to end routine overuse of antibiotics in farming has been slammed by experts.

The average European level of antibiotic overuse in farming is claimed to be 300% higher than the amount recommended by experts, new data from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has shown.

Use of the strongest antibiotics deemed as “critically important to human medicine​” by the World Health Organization (WHO) has increased to record levels on meat farms across major European countries.

Data from EMA has revealed that many European countries are failing to effectively end the prophylactic use of antibiotics​, with the use of some of the strongest drugs available on the market more than twice as high in livestock as in people.

‘Shocking overuse’

EMA collected sales data of antimicrobial agents, such as colistin, fluoroquinolone​ and cephalosporin, from 28 European Union (EU) members and the non-EU state Switzerland. This study revealed that the average use of antibiotics on farm level stood at 152 milligrams (mg) per kilogram (kg) of livestock. This was more than three times higher than the recommended amount of 50mg/kg, suggested by the UK government-funded O’Neill Review​ on antimicrobial resistance.

The shocking overuse of farm antibiotics shown by these data is a result of the continued failure by most countries to ban routine preventative mass medication in intensive farming,​” said Cóilín Nunan, of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, a group of NGOs concerned with animal and medical health.

Spain now uses 100 times more antibiotics per unit of livestock than Norway, 80 times more than Iceland and 35 times more than Sweden. The main reason for the difference is that Spain, like most of Europe, allows routine mass medication, whereas the Nordic countries do not. The increased use of last-resort and critically important antibiotics is particularly alarming and confirms that reliance on voluntary and softly-softly approaches is not working.​”

Despite claims of antibiotics overuse, data from EMA shows that overall sales of veterinary antibiotics continue to decline in most European countries. Between 2011 and 2014, EMA recorded a 2.4% decline in sales of antibiotics, but also registered what it described as a “considerable increase” in one European country which recorded the most sales of antibiotics. However, EMA said the trend in overall falling sales of antibiotics for farm use gives “reassurance” Member States are taking a responsible attitude toward the threat of antimicrobial resistance.

“Even if the data has to be interpreted with caution, the report shows that in 24 countries there has been a 12% decline in sales of antimicrobials to food producing animals over the period 2011-2014,” said a spokesperson from EU farming body Copa-Cogeca. “This confirms that EU farmers are making strong efforts to curb the use of antibiotics. In line with the European Platform for Responsible Use of Medicines in Animals (EPRUMA), we support the collection of data on the use of antibiotics to have a clearer picture of the situation.”

Sweden was earmarked as a nation that is making good progress on antibiotic use as there is no routine use and 90% of farm antibiotic usage is for individual animal treatment. In contrast, 91% of European farm antibiotic use is for the mass-medication of pigs and chickens. This is generally administered via feed and drinking water.


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