Antibiotic resistance: Why protecting food standards post-Brexit is crucial


Antibiotic resistance is one of the most critical threats to global public health, and overuse in livestock farming is a leading cause of increasing rates.

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By Annabel Mulliner

The Agriculture Bill, which is currently being pushed through Parliament, is a major post-Brexit concern for farmers. Essentially, when we leave the EU, we also leave its Common Agricultural Policy (or CAP). The CAP strives for sustainable management, as well as the maintenance of rural landscapes and farmers’ wages. The Agriculture Bill sets in place alternative policies for agriculture, in the absence of the CAP.

Many UK farmers are concerned that once the Bill is passed, our domestic food market will be flooded with cheaper, lower quality American produce. At the beginning of this year, MPs rejected an amendment from the House of Lords that would require trade deals to meet UK animal welfare and food safety rules; last week, they again resisted food standards amendments to the Bill. The government claimed that rules banning imports of substandard products, like chlorine-washed chicken, will be automatically written into UK law when the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December.

But the Lords deemed these changes essential to ensuring that exports of hormone- or chlorine-treated meat products don’t find their way onto our shelves. Though neither of these products sound particularly appetising anyway, it’s crucial for public health reasons that we ensure that they don’t become mainstream in the UK.

Particularly worrying – especially considering our current public health crisis – is the US’ excessive use of antibiotics in livestock production. The World Health Organisation has campaigned for farmers worldwide to cease using antibiotics in animals, due to the severe health risks this poses to humans. Antibiotic use in agriculture is one of the leading causes of “superbugs” – bacteria that do not respond to traditional antibiotic treatment. This is because antibiotic resistance can be passed on from livestock to humans when consumed.

A pig on a factory farm, for example, receives its first dose of oxytetracycline as soon as it is born, to prevent infective enteritis. Once it is moved to a nursery, its feed will be dosed with other antibiotics, to fend off the various illnesses it’s susceptible to, owing to its immature and overstressed immune system.

As well as being used in place of sanitary practises, antibiotics are also used in the US and other parts of the world as a growth aid. “Antibiotic growth promoters” either destroy or inhibit bacteria. It’s unclear how exactly these growth promoters work, but it is believed that they suppress bacteria in the intestines, allowing animals to digest food more efficiently. A pig on an antibiotic-supplemented diet can gain 10% more weight per day. This enables “speed breeding” as animals take much less time to meet their goal weights, allowing for a fast turnover.

Antibiotics are often administered through the livestock’s food and water supplies, meaning that the excess is eventually deposited into waterways and slurry. This creates a reservoir of antibiotic residues in the natural environment, which the UN stated in 2017 would “enhance the spread of resistance genes in microbial communities.”

Animals on factory farms account for over eighty percent of the US’ antibiotic use. A nine per cent rise in the sale of antibiotics used in U.S. animal feed between 2017 and 2018 indicates that antibiotic usage by factory farms is still rising. According to The Guardian, a cow reared for beef in the US may be given an antibiotic dosage 16 times larger than a cow reared in the UK. The overuse of antibiotics, like chlorinating chicken, often masks poor hygiene practices; antibiotics are used to prevent infections in overcrowded, filthy feedlots, instead of improving living standards for livestock.

Antimicrobial resistance already causes at least 700,000 lives per year across the globe. In the future, antibiotic resistance could make common infections, like influenza or tuberculosis difficult to treat as our common antibiotics become less effective. This means using more expensive medicines, such as newly developed antibiotics and other new treatments, driving up the cost of healthcare and widening disparity between the rich and poor.

This year has demonstrated just how catastrophic the impact of an untreatable disease can be, and some scientists believe that antibiotic resistance will make the next pandemic worse than the last. Secondary infections are common in critically ill Covid-19 patients, and if these pathogens are resistant to treatment, this results in an even higher death toll.

The overuse of antibiotics in livestock is, therefore, a huge concern for public health in the UK. If we are to prevent hazards like superbugs and antimicrobial resistance, it is imperative that the government seeks to protect our supermarket shelves from substandard imported meat.