UK: Which supermarkets routinely use antibiotics in their meat production?


17 Nov 2017 --- As World Antibiotic Awareness Week draws to a close, campaign group, The Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, is calling for reductions to farm antibiotic use across the EU and for an end to routine preventative medication of groups of animals. Its new report discloses which UK supermarkets routinely use antibiotics in their meat production.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that farmers must stop using powerful antibiotics on animals because of the serious risk to human health. Historically antibiotics have been routinely fed to farmed animals as a preventative measure to stop them catching diseases. 

However, with the rise of antibiotic resistance and the lack of new antibiotics being discovered there is pressure on the British farming industry to stop this practice.

The Alliance has carried out an assessment of the antibiotics policies of nine of the UK’s largest supermarkets, investigating which businesses had taken concrete action to reduce the number of antibiotics being used in their supply chains.

It assessed the publicly available policies of the supermarkets;  Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Waitrose. The table below shows the results. Since this was compiled, the Alliance says that Lidl has published an antibiotics policy.

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The results 
According to the Alliance, Waitrose has taken action on nearly all of the areas outlined in its questions. They have banned the routine preventative use, restricted the use of the critically important antibiotics and have publicly stated that they’ve banned the use of the last-resort antibiotic colistin. Waitrose is the only supermarket that has committed to publishing antibiotic-use data for its suppliers, although it is not yet clear whether this will be by the farming system. 

Marks & Spencer has similarly published a very detailed policy which addresses all of the parameters set out in questions sent by the Alliance, bar the publication of data gathered on antibiotic use in their supply chains. M&S joins Waitrose in being the only two supermarkets to publicly state that they have banned the use of colistin.

Tesco and Sainsbury’s have also implemented a good range of policies, including banning the routine preventative use and restricting the critically important antibiotics, but unlike Waitrose and M&S, they have not yet banned colistin. They also do not publish antibiotic-use data, although they do collect some data, says the Alliance.

The Co-op has banned the routine preventative use of antibiotics, though it isn’t explicit in their policy whether CIAs are restricted. Aldi has a public position on antibiotics published on its website, rather than a full policy. Within this, it mentions measures to limit the routine preventative use of antibiotics, but it is not explicitly banned. It is monitoring use and has restricted the use of CIAs.

Morrisons has banned routine preventative use in chicken, dairy and egg production, but has yet to ban such use in other species. The retailer has also only partly restricted the use of critically important antibiotics, and do not appear to collect antibiotic-use data, says the Alliance. 

Its policy mentions a “proactive approach” to monitoring and reducing use. Asda has a publicly available policy, but it only includes restrictions on the critically important antibiotics and has no ban on routine preventative use.

What’s next?
The Alliance is calling on all supermarket to end routine preventative use of antibiotics in their supply chains. 

“There is already significant political and farming-industry support for such a move and there is plenty of practical farmers and vet-focused best practice guidance which can help to make this a reality,” it says. “While many supermarkets have programs to reduce and/or phase out the use of critically important antibiotics, their next step should be to publish information about how much of these types of medicines are still being used, and in which species.”

“Monitoring usage must be high on the agenda for supermarkets so that reduction strategies can be devised. Publishing antibiotic-use data by the farming system is also essential. Some supermarkets already have such data for some species, and publishing it is essential. We will recreate this assessment in 2018 to monitor progress and will again publicly release the findings.”

Funding for Irish projects
The Health Research Board of Ireland has invested €740,000 (US$872,937) in two Irish research projects that look at how antibiotic resistance might be influenced by the food supply chain. The funding is part of a joint EU and international research collaboration to tackle the global challenge of antibiotic resistance.

Ireland has a relatively high rate of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in human health compared to most European countries with the country ranking third highest in the EU for antibiotic use. 

According to Dr. Mairead O'Driscoll, Interim Chief Executive at the Health Research Board (HRB), “Antimicrobial resistance is a global challenge which is beyond the capability of any one country to solve.”

Irish researchers based at Teagasc, Maynooth University, and the APC Microbiome Institute at University College Cork secured €740,000 out of the €12 million EU funding pot from across 26 countries. Their projects which take a One Health approach, will look at food chain-related approaches to help tackle AMR in animal husbandry and plants.

The concept of One Health recognizes that the health of humans, animals and the environment are interconnected. It involves applying a coordinated, collaborative, multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral approach to address potential or existing risks that originate at the animal-human-environment interface.

“This investment is a positive step to support Irish projects that take a One Health approach to antibiotic resistance,” adds Dr. O'Driscoll. “This is somewhat new territory for the HRB, but an approach which has been requested from the research community itself.”

The successful projects are:

  • Preventing transmission of MRSA from livestock to humans through competitive exclusion. This project will use competition amongst bacteria as a means of preventing transmission of MRSA from the food chain to humans. 
  • Intervention of antimicrobial resistance transfer into the food chain. This project will look at the use of chicken and pig manure as fertilizer and investigate ways to minimize the threat of AMR at the very start of the food chain.

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