Post-Brexit rules on antibiotic use on farms water down EU laws, experts say | Farming

New rules intended to reduce the use of antibiotics in farming in the UK have been criticised as too lax and weaker than their equivalent under EU laws.

The updated regulations come into force on Friday. They ban the routine use of antibiotics on farm animals, and specifically their use to “compensate for poor hygiene, inadequate animal husbandry, or poor farm management practices”.

Experts, however, say there are loopholes in the legislation that are closed off under EU laws in place since 2022, and by which the UK would be bound if it were still a member state.

Ministers repeatedly promised, before and after Brexit, that farming and food standards in the UK would not be watered down after leaving the EU. The Guardian, however, has revealed numerous examples of environmental rules that have been weakened, from regulations on air pollution and water quality to pesticide use and agricultural emissions.

This latest divergence is of particular concern because the overuse of antibiotics in farming has dire consequences for human health. The UK’s former chief medical officer Sally Davies said in an interview with the Guardian earlier this week that antibiotic overuse was leading to the rise of near-invincible superbugs that pose a severe threat to human health, making previously minor ailments deadly and threatening to make routine operations unsafe.

About two-thirds of antibiotics globally are used on farm animals, and they are often used indiscriminately either to promote growth or to try to prevent infections that arise from overcrowding, poor management and insanitary conditions on factory farms.

The EU has taken strong steps to clamp down on overuse on its farms. Prof Roberto La Ragione, the head of the school of biosciences at the University of Surrey and a fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists, said preventing overuse was of vital importance.

“Antibiotics are critical to human and animal medicine, but the emergence of resistance is a global concern,” he said. “Therefore we must reduce their use to help stop the emergence and spread of resistance.

“We know that animal health and welfare are inextricably linked with our own, so it is vital that antibiotic resistance is tackled in humans and animals, and we can all play a part, from the scientific community to pet owners, vets, doctors, pharmacists, companies, farmers and the government.”

Under the new rules, it will still be possible to feed antibiotics prophylactically to large groups of animals, a practice campaigners say is effectively the same as, and just as dangerous as, routine use. The guidelines say this prophylaxis should only be “in exceptional circumstances”, but questions in parliament by the shadow minister Daniel Zeichner elicited a response from the farming minister Mark Spencer that this would include “where there would be a risk of infection or severe consequences if antibiotics were not applied”.

Coílín Nunan, a scientist adviser at the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, said this meant widespread prophylactic use on large groups of animals would still occur frequently, because when animals are kept in highly intensive conditions there is often significant risk of infection.

EU rules ban antibiotics for group prophylaxis, which is limited to an individual animal only.

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Nunan said: “Unfortunately the government has deliberately weakened the legislation in comparison to the EU, and this will allow some poorly run farms to keep on feeding large groups of animals antibiotics, even when no disease is present.

“We are also concerned the ban on using antibiotics to compensate for inadequate animal husbandry and poor farm management practices may not be properly implemented.”

The Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics wants the government to ban group prophylaxis, introduce mandatory data collection from farms on their use of antibiotics, set tougher targets for the reduction of farm antibiotic use and improve animal welfare and husbandry standards.

UK farming and veterinary oversight continue to be in turmoil after Brexit. There is a shortage of vets, and higher workloads as a result of the changes to animal certification and increased bureaucracy related to animal exports and imports.

A spokesperson for the Veterinary Medicines Directorate said: “We do not support the routine use of antibiotics, including where antibiotics are used to compensate for inadequate farming practices. However, a blanket ban of prophylaxis could be harmful to animal health and welfare, while also increasing the risk of diseases spreading.”

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