Antibiotics: end the secrecy around drug use on farms

One UK dairy and poultry farmer has decided to speak out about the realities of antibiotic use on his farm. Now others in the food industry should follow suit, says Andrew Wasley

For more than 18 months I and colleagues have been investigating the use of antibiotics in livestock farming and its links to the growing health crisis surrounding drug-resistance. The main findings – including revelations that pork on sale in UK supermarkets is contaminated with an MRSA superbug connected to the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms – have been well documented and prompted calls for urgent action to avert a potential epidemic.

Disturbing as this is, what is perhaps more alarming is not what we found, but what we didn’t, due to the veil of secrecy that surrounds this controversial issue. The food industry – including some large retailers, intensive livestock producers, meat processors, vets, and even government regulators – says it takes the problem of antibiotic resistance seriously, but appears reluctant to discuss specifics when it comes to the role of intensive farming in fuelling the crisis. There’s particular reticence to disclose details of the drug regimes operated behind the closed doors of factory farms – what antibiotics are used, when, in what quantities and for what purpose.

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Nearly half of all antibiotics sold in the UK are used in farming. Photo: Gavin Williams

Individual farmers can be forgiven for not wanting to say. Many – particularly those contracted to large retailers or the big integrated livestock companies – are probably worried about being blacklisted if they talk to nosey journalists without permission, and in any case have their livelihoods – families, mortgages, future – to consider.

And regulators and health officials can – at least in part – honestly claim that they don’t have all the answers; record keeping around veterinary antibiotic use in the UK is patchy to say the least, with no centralised prescription database. The body tasked with policing veterinary drug use, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD), has to make do with sales data for the different classes of antibiotics sold in order to guess what’s going on in farms. (Their job is further hindered by a black market trade in antibiotics, particularly via the internet – we were able to order enough antibiotics online to treat a pig herd without a prescription – as required in law – or any questions asked, something that alarmed even farming chiefs.)

But supermarkets, livestock companies and vets do know. They just choose not to make what they know public. Seasoned campaigners will tell you that this is a familiar pattern when it comes to intensive farming – they say the sprawling agribusiness sector is riddled with vested interests and commercial sensitivities and that there’s vast profits at stake. Scandals around animal welfare, food safety or labour conditions do not make for good business. Therefore the less that is known, or allowed to be known, the better.

Milking Time
Antibiotics are used in many dairy herds to reduce levels of clinical mastitis, a painful condition. Photo: Gavin Williams

The secrecy is alarming because, quite simply, the stakes couldn’t be higher: the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that the planet risks entering a “post-antibiotic era” where previously routine medical procedures become deadly as the drugs used to prevent infections taking hold – quite simply – stop working. They say that life saving operations – organ transplants, cancer treatments and caesarian section births – will also become much more risky.

Low estimates currently suggest at least 700,000 deaths annually could be attributed to the wider problem of drug-resistance globally and some studies claim as many as 10 million extra deaths could result each year by 2050 unless action is taken.

Whilst veterinary antibiotics are only part of the problem – it’s actually the overuse of medicines by people that is the bigger driver of resistance – the figures might surprise you; almost half of all antibiotics consumed in the UK are fed to farm animals, including increasing amounts of important drugs deemed as being critical for treating human infections.

When doctors were accused of dishing out too many antibiotics to patients needlessly – contributing to the spread of resistant superbugs – the UK Government responded with tough new targets for a reduction in antibiotic prescriptions in a bid to combat the problem. Yet drug use on farms has received much less attention, despite growing evidence that links some drug-resistant bacteria in human infections directly to antibiotics given to livestock, particularly for food poisoning illnesses including campylobacter, salmonella and E.coli, as well as MRSA.

It’s for this reason that those in the farming industry who do choose to talk deserve special mention. People such as Rupert Major, a young Staffordshire-based poultry and dairy farmer. He’s not a whistleblower or an activist or a maverick or an organic producer. He’s a conventional farmer trying to make a decent living producing top notch eggs and milk from healthy animals. We visited him on his farm in Tutbury and saw both the poultry and dairy operations up close, and were given a thorough overview of the farm’s workings, including how and why (and when) antibiotics are used.

We didn’t appreciate at the time just how unusual transparency of this sort would be. Our interview with Rupert – at one point standing in the rain with his cows feeding just behind him – offers such a rare insight into what is going on, at least on one sizable farm, that we wanted to share it in full.*

Rupert Major farmer
Rupert Major runs a dairy and poultry farm in Tutbury. Photo: Gavin Williams

Tell us the type of farm you have, and the size of the farm?

So we’re tenants of an 800 acre farm, and we have 500 hundred dairy cows, and we also have 24,000 bird free range poultry unit.

Starting with the dairy side of the business, how do you use antibiotics? How are they used within the dairy system with the cows?

We use antibiotics for two broad reasons, preventive antibiotics, and then antibiotics for illness. So preventative and cure. And the preventative antibiotics we use are dry cow antibiotics, so they’re long acting antibiotics that you infuse into the udder, through a teat, and then that means there is an amount of antibiotics in the udder during the cows dry period when the cow is not lactating. We also use this in conjunction with a teat sealant as a physical barrier at the end of the teat, so we’re looking to sterilise the udder with antibiotics. It’s extremely effective. So, by using dry cow antibiotics we greatly reduce the amount of clinical mastitis, so clinical udder infections that [we would] have during lactation – which can be painful for the cow and make her ill. And then, for example if she did have clinical mastitis, you would then use antibiotics to treat [it].

How often would the cow be given the preventive dry cow treatment?

Once a year. Each cow, once a year. At the end of her lactation, ready for the next one.

Outside of the vet, how often would you say antibiotics are used by yourself, or staff on the dairy farms?

We’re targeting a 10% incident of mastitis within our heard, which would be very low compared to the national average. So that would be 40 cows in the year, and other then that [we] would use it for small elements. we have a cow at the moment, she has a sore on her udder, and we’re treating that with a spray antibiotic for instance. In the main […] treatment for mastitis would be our most significant use.

In the terms of the process of the use of these drugs, are they carried on site, or do you need to contact a vet every time an animal gets sick?

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All of the antibiotics used on Rupert Major’s dairy and poultry farm are issued by a vet. Photo: Gavin Williams

They’re all issued on prescription, for instance we know from our historical treatment; we have a locked drugs cabinent where we keep [drugs] so we’ve got treatment on site, ready to use, and basically we’ll replenish from the vet. But it’s all part of our herd management plan, where we have an annual meeting with the vet, where they’ll review incidents and problems and review methods of treatment. So you’re carrying a certain amount of drugs, but if you’ve had anything unusual your vet is only a phone call away.

In terms of the poultry side of the business, how frequently do you use antibiotics and why do you use them here?

So one of the significant difference between dairy and poultry farming, cows are large animals of value, it’s significant money, so you will treat individuals. Where as with poultry, where we approach flock health as a whole, you’re not going to treat individual birds. [There’s] rigorous vaccination programes when they’re chicks and [during] rearing over the first 16 weeks of their lives. We use very little antibiotics in laying poultry, because there is [only] a small amount of antibiotics available but also, by good vaccinations programmes, and good onsite hygiene, biosecurity and so on, we have very low [usage]… Before your visit we have had respiratory [issues] that we’ve managed to isolate via blood tests. So we’re using appropriate antibiotics to help them against this respiratory challenge and thats’ the first antibiotic we’ve used on the [poultry] farm for nearly a year.

How are the antibiotics that you use with poultry administered?

Once again, all [are administered with a] prescription from our specialist poultry vet. But it’s basically kept in powered form, diluted into solution, then through using a dosatron which is a inline metering system, so it can very accurately put a few ml [of antibiotics] per litre of water. So, for instance, we might treat the poultry so it goes through the water system, they’re all drinking the water, for instance you might give antibiotics for a course of three days through the water system, so every time they’re drinking they’re getting an amount of the antibiotics through the water. That’s the most commonly method used, you can have some antibiotics in feed, but we just use it in water.

Antibiotic resistance is becoming a bigger concern because of the public health crisis linked to it. What role do you think farming might play in that crisis?

I think […] responsible antibiotic use across humans and animals is of great importance. I think that efforts should always be made for preventable management, vaccinations, rather then treatment of animal diseases [..]. I think in part, agriculture has responsibility, i think it’s also in line with animal practice, good husbandry, if antibiotics are being used to solve the problem. We should really recourse back to whats the origin of this problem.

Some campaigners are calling for the use of antibiotics in farming to be much more strictly controlled. How would that impact farmers? Do you think it needs that extra control?

Compared with poultry and pig farms, dairy outfits use relatively few antibiotics. Photo: Gavin Williams

No, it doesn’t need anymore extra control. We have very cohesive system of prescription from the vet. We then have medical records, which are kept of the animal when it was treated and what it was treated with; withdrawal periods; there are batch numbers for the different drugs that are used. There is already a fully traceable [system], it’s a completely traceable set of circumstances which involve records at the vets, and records kept at our end. I would say anymore control, I don’t really see what would be more achievable there, it’s currently completely traceable as it is.

How important are antibiotics to conventional, modern farming?

I think they play an important role, because of their effectiveness, as in certain antibiotics are extremely effective in treating animals that are unwell. They’re not central to the system of production, they’re ideally used for preventative or to cure problems. But if we asked a doctor a similar question, they are an extremely useful tool in the management of animal health, which is very important.

What direction do you think modern farming systems need to go in order to meet global food needs?

I think the writing’s on the wall, with regards to increasing world demands for all different types of food products. That’s a challenge to government, that’s a challenge to members of the agricultural community of the world over, because there is a demand, an insatiable demand for food products. So I think that then opens up a whole selection of challenges [around] how is that production going to be met… And also, intensification, that’s a word [that] conjures up different feelings for different people. The fact is intensification and sustainability can still go in hand and hand, and I think it will be important for government’s to invest into research and the development ahead of time to help farmers to be able to meet production in the future.

*interview questions and answers edited for clarity

Whilst not everyone will agree with these views – it’s fair to say that intensification has become a dirty word in some circles – or even some of the practices apparently carried out on his farm – preventative use of antibiotics, even via dry cow therapy, divides opinion – they’d be hard pushed not to take their hats off to him for his transparent approach. If others in the food and farming industry followed suit, it would make life much easier for those trying to establish how antibiotics are being used, and ultimately assist those battling to combat the perils of this deadly crisis.

Andrew Wasley is an investigative journalist specialising in food and farming issues, and the author of the Ecologist Guide to Food. His investigation for the Guardian into hygiene failures in the intensive poultry industry, with Felicity Lawrence and Radu Ciorniciuc, won the 2015 Derek Cooper Award for Investigative & Campaigning Food Writing.