Delivering antibiotic-use targets will take courage

Posted on November 02, 2017 by John Fitzgerald

Learning last week that the top level Government target for sales of antibiotics for farm animals has been ‘smashed’ two years early, achieving a 45mg/PCU average cross-sector use in 2016 sales data, I was – as you would expect – delighted.

However, elation was tinged with caution as we look to the future. No one likes change, after all. So where do we go from here? Will momentum decline?

I hope not – not now RUMA’s Targets Task Force has also reported ambitious new targets for further reductions or refinements in each livestock sector over the next few years.

A year of hard work

One lesson I have learned from RUMA’s journey over the past 18 months is the benefit you get when you accept inevitability and make it work for you, rather than against.

I had been opposed to antibiotic usage targets as, if set poorly, they could have unintended negative consequences. But with the O’Neill Review, targets became inevitable – and it was important for RUMA and the wider food and farming industry to embrace this.

So we set up a Targets Task Force, involving vets and farmers, and now after a year of hard work we have some truly innovative targets. These range from use below 100mg/PCU for the pig sector by 2020, to commitments to maintain the fantastic reductions achieved in the broiler and egg sectors. From a year-on-year reduction in oral antibiotics for neonatal lambs, to increases in teat sealant use in dairy cows. The targets are wide-ranging and bespoke for each sector.

Now it’s about delivery, and vets have a significant role to play in sustaining effort and helping to realise the targets.

Despite this, we recognise vets are in a difficult position. They have commercial businesses to run and customers to satisfy. While vets are the gatekeepers of prescription-controlled medicines and highly respected and trusted, this is about much more than prescribing differently – it’s about behaviour change across the board, as any GP will tell you.

Looking ahead

So looking to the future, what do we know is inevitable?

It is likely that if we continue to use antibiotics as we were, in the next few years we would be facing the very same challenges in animal medicine as human medicine does now.

The difference is that farming is unlikely to have the same opportunity to benefit from new antibiotics or technology. In fact, we should accept now that we probably have the full arsenal of antibiotics we are ever going to have. This is why we have to prize them.

There’s also the moral argument. The threat in human medicine is real. Any one of us or our loved ones could succumb to a drug-resistant infection after a routine operation.

Or you could look at the reputational case. The UK faces an uncertain future and unknown trading opportunities. All marketing advantages will be needed as new economic alliances are formed in the coming years, and the global healthcare population is doing a great job creating a potential ready-made market for responsibly-produced meat and milk, should we choose to engage.

Then there’s the opportunity to separate ourselves cleanly from the bad PR surrounding countries which are slower to act and have a bigger mountain to climb before they are seen as responsible animal keepers and producers of quality food.

In any of these scenarios, the inevitable future I see is one with vastly reduced antibiotic prescriptions and a far bigger focus on preventative health i.e, responsible use! So how prepared is the vet sector for this? And what opportunities does it present?

Now is the time when innovative vets, who have the courage to challenge their business models and find new ways to alter their own and farmer behaviours, can differentiate what they do. By eliminating endemic disease, increasing vaccine use, having difficult conversations with clients about the need for antibiotic prescriptions and developing easy ways to record and feedback on antibiotic use.

Now is the time to accept what is inevitable and look at how change could, in fact, be good for us all.

More information

  • Our special blog series on antimicrobial resistance, AMR in Focus, invites experts from the fields of veterinary science, academia and government to share perspectives on key achievements, latest research and future action needed to tackle this serious issue. All opinions in the blogs reflect those of the writer.
  • For more discussions on antimicrobial resistance, join us at  BVA Congress at the London Vet Show (16-17 November) for a Friday afternoon session on  'The psychology of antimicrobial resistance: what can social science tell us?', featuring David Brodbelt, Professor of Evidence-based Veterinary Medicine at Royal Veterinary College; Ian Donald,  Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Director, Mulberry Research & Consulting Ltd, and Kristen Reyher, Senior Lecturer in Farm Animal Science at the University of Bristol.

John FitzGerald

Written by John FitzGerald

Secretary General, RUMA

John FitzGerald is the Secretary General of the RUMA Alliance and also chairs the Pig Health and Welfare Council’s Antimicrobial Use Sub-Group. John was the Operations Director at the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, the UK’s veterinary medicines regulator, for 10 years until his early retirement in March 2011, where he was responsible for all policy issues in relation to veterinary medicines, including antimicrobial resistance.