Antibiotics in livestock

In the UK, 44% of antibiotics are prescribed to non-humans – that’s livestock, including gamebirds, (37%) and pets (7%)1.   That’s not to say there are likely to be antibiotics in your meat, there is a mandated withdrawal period before any animal is slaughtered for meat or before milk enters the food chain.    However, the overuse of antibiotics as a cause of antibiotic resistance applies as much to veterinary use as for human use.  Despite the emergence of antibiotic resistance shortly after the discovery of antibiotics in the 1940s, and many reports in the 1960s and 1970s, it wasn’t until 2006 that the use of antibiotics as growth promoters was banned in the EU.  The good news is that government targets to reduce antibiotic use in livestock are currently on track.  The bad news is that they are finding antibiotic resistant genes in meat around the world.

The Guardian recently reported on an increase in the proportion of chickens found in UK supermarkets that had campylobacter resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.  (Campylobacter can cause serious food poisoning in humans.)  Whilst there are differences in many of the bacteria that infect animals and humans, there is the potential for resistance to be transferred between species (horizontal transfer) and there are some bacteria that are shared; Salmonella and Campylobacter being two examples.

It is also worth noting that 83 billion tonnes of livestock manure is spread onto land each year in the UK, and in one gram of manure there are 1×1011 bacteria, which means that if just 1% of the bacteria have resistance to antibiotics, then there are more resistant bugs than there are grains of sand going onto UK fields each year.

So, given that it might be a problem, what are the supermarkets doing about it?  To date, there are only three supermarkets publishing data on the use of antibiotics in their supply chain; Marks and Spencer, Waitrose and Asda, all seem to have less than the sector average which means someone is using more than average.  With the exception of Lidl, all of the supermarkets publish their policy online; many contain the same aims.  Most are targeting a reduction in the amount used in their supply chain, although some are only just starting to monitor and establish their baselines.  All of them say that they will only allow the use of antibiotics under veterinary supervision.  But some of the pledges are not entirely clear; for example, Aldi state on their website that they don’t support the use of antibiotics as prophylactics (used to treat an animal to prevent disease e.g. if others in the herd are ill), but then in their policy they state that prophylaxis is only permitted under veterinary supervision.  Sainsbury’s have something similar on their website.

But, most concerning to me is the stand on CIAs – Critically Important Antibiotics – antibiotics important to human health.  Only M&S states that they prohibit the use of these, including Colistin, the last resort antibiotic for humans.  All of the other supermarkets mention them, but they only go so far as to state that they can only be used as a last resort.  Whilst these antibiotics only make up around 1% of the total use in animals, M&S seem to be saying that they don’t need to be used at all.  With the first bacon labelled as being raised without antibiotics hitting supermarket shelves2, perhaps change is on the way?


Pig Business

Last night, encouraged by a myriad of twitters and tweets, I tuned in to watch Tracy Worcester’s ‘Pig Business‘, an exposé of the pig industry.

For those of you who did not see it, Pig Business was a relatively objective film highlighting the activities of Smithfield, one of the US‘s largest suppliers of meat, as it started up operations in Poland, where it has bought up a number of farms and meat processors in the post communist era.

The film concentrated on two main themes; surprisingly, animal welfare did not seem to rank as highly as the Industry’s impact on human health, or the loss of a traditional way of life for Poland’s many small farmers.

Human health issues were linked to the practice of spraying the pig excrement onto nearby fields from a series of lagoons, a method that is now banned for new facilities in the US due to the ill health suffered by nearby residents; needless to say there were similar complaints in Poland.

Predictably, the number of independent farmers was also on the decline, as they cannot compete with the sheer scale of the operations and were, in the main, not prepared to house their livestock in similar intensive conditions. An interesting point made by an American campaigner, suggested that this competitive edge would be seriously eroded if the intensive producers had to pay the full environmental cost of their operations; a point coming into sharper focus in most industries today.

On the lack of sentimentality I would like to applaud the film makers as many people are unconcerned by animal welfare standards or the resulting quality of the intensively raised food. As Tracy stated in the film, food has started to become a commodity: people are only interested in the cheapest price, and this is a point on which I can become quite agitated if drawn into a debate.

Over the last few months, and particularly during the European elections, there has been a lot of dissatisfaction with eastern European immigrants coming over here and taking our jobs.

Why do people not equate their purchasing decisions, and the constant drive towards price reductions, with the loss of jobs in the UK? This film made it plain to me that it’s these same decisions that prevent the same immigrants from making a living at home, unemployment was very high: jobs in agriculture have plummeted to realise the efficiency gains needed to provide us with cheap food.

Why can we not accept that food should have a minimum cost, buy a little less, eat a little less, keep people in jobs, and enjoy better quality food. Paying more might make us think twice about throwing things away.

Capitalism is a double edged sword, and it is easy to blame everything on evil Corporations, but the truth less comforting: they have to sell what we as consumers will buy. If we change our behaviour we would surely all be winners? 

‘Pests’ and pricing.

If deer, rabbit and pigeons are such a pest causing millions of pounds of damage each year, then why are they so expensive and difficult to source at the butchers and supermarket?

A couple of weeks ago BBC Radio 4’s  Farming Today concentrated on the problem of pests in farming, including some that those of us who are non-farmers would probably not have thought about straight away.  Each day they highlighted a different animal, the damage they caused and the cost of protecting against them.  The animals covered included pigeons, deer and rabbits, wild boar and rats.  

Deer populations have apparently increased in recent years, and are attracted to the crops that are planted by the farmers  as well as causing problems for forestry.  A lot of money is spent on deer proof fencing as they are large enough to barge their way through standard fences if they want to get to the other side.

The rabbit population currently stands at 45 million, they cause damage to crops but also to machinery due to the holes that they create.  Pigeons are also on the increase, woodpigeons being one of the most successful birds of recent years despite those declines seen in other wild bird populations often finding their way into grain stores as well as causing problems in the fields.

Now, I don’t come from a farming background, or even a rural one, so I find it hard to think about fluffy bunnies being a nuisance or deer, of which I have only seen a few, to be sufficient in number to cause damage (although I can quite understand the pigeon problems – we have one that runs amok in our garden most days).  However, there is a burning question in my mind, why are these so expensive to buy at the butchers or supermarket?  If these animals are costing hundreds of millions of pounds each year then why do two venison steaks cost £5.99 at Waitrose, why are pigeons about the same price as chicken when they are about a tenth of the size and why, is it almost impossible to buy rabbit (I have even tried a local butcher for rabbit and venison).  Even if I could buy rabbit, the chances are that it would be farmed.  Yes, that’s right, approximately 95% of rabbit sold in this country is farmed (and often not in conditions that are much better than those of battery chickens).  So, in response to the damage these are causing can we not employ people to humanely kill these pests and sell them locally for a reasonable price – are we missing a trick, can Jamie Oliver create a market for rabbit?  Is it time to simplify the legislation, are we concerned that these ‘pests’ are going to become extinct.  We can’t leave it all to the polecats (although maybe this is a case for the reintroduction of lynx and wolves?).