Blog - Alarm bells from the Agriculture Bill: will we legislate to protect our antibiotics?

Alarm bells from the Agriculture Bill: will we legislate to protect our antibiotics?

Suzi Shingler, Campaign Manager, Alliance to Save our Antibiotics


Last night MPs voted against amendments to the Agriculture Bill which would have protected UK food standards in law. The Bill has another chance in the Lords so it’s not done and dusted yet. But if the mood of the majority of MPs prevails, how could this affect the UK’s efforts to reduce its antibiotic use in livestock farming?

In recent years the UK farming industry has done well in cutting out a lot of unnecessary antibiotic use, voluntarily reducing use by 50% in just four years. This has been achieved by reducing and, in some cases, ending preventative mass medication, setting species-specific reduction targets, and improving data collection for each species’ antibiotic usage. The possibility of stricter regulations being introduced if voluntary cuts were not achieved has also been a motivating factor.

All of this has happened in the context of a relatively stable and predictable market. Looking ahead, many are worried that the rug is about to be pulled from under UK farmers’ feet. As highlighted by last night’s Channel 4 Dispatches documentary, a trade deal with the US could open the market to cheap food produced to much lower standards and with over 5 times as many antibiotics per kg of livestock. The overuse of farm antibiotics in some other countries is even worse than in the US. That is why it is so alarming that there are still no regulations in the UK to prevent preventative mass medication in UK farming.

There are some basics covered in UK law, such as the need for a veterinary prescription and a list of what you can and cannot use, but the avoidance of routine preventative use is only a voluntary industry requirement. The EU is banning routine antibiotic use in 2022, the UK is yet to commit to do the same. How can farmers be expected to keep to high voluntary standards if the UK is to allow in cheaper produce produced with completely routine antibiotic use?

Unfortunately, it seems that we are on course to have some of the weakest regulations for farm antibiotic use in Western Europe. This government promised in their manifesto that they would protect our food standards, but are now refusing to put anything down on paper, asking us instead to trust their word. If our farmers come under pressure from cheaper imports, there is nothing to prevent them from falling back on a regimen of routine antibiotic use, keeping costs down by perhaps cutting corners on animal welfare. If anything the last few decades of witnessing the growth of factory farming has taught us, is that treating animals poorly can turn a quicker profit, and this is propped up with significant levels of medication, including antibiotics.

We have to take the lack of legislative action on food standards as a warning for the impending consultation on whether or not the UK will ban the routine use of antibiotics on farms. Get it written in to law, otherwise there is no guarantee that it can be upheld. The utility of our antibiotics depends on it.

 Read more about the EU's changes coming in 2022 in our briefing here.