Warning to post-Brexit deal-makers: don't lower UK farm standards to match US where antibiotic use is five times higher than in the UK

Warning to post-Brexit deal-makers: don’t lower UK farm standards to match
US where antibiotic use is five times higher than in the UK


The use of antibiotics in US farming is five times higher than in UK production, new findings suggest. According to an investigation by the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, antibiotic use in the US is 9 to 16 times higher per livestock unit for beef cattle, three times higher for chickens, twice as high for pigs and five times higher for turkeys than it is in the UK [1].

These figures are due to be discussed in detail at a conference at the Royal Society of Medicine in London on Thursday - 'Antimicrobial resistance and agriculture: Is there a threat to public health and how is British farming responding?’

The EU currently has a ban on the importation of US beef into the UK due to the use of growth hormones in US cattle. Growth hormones are banned in the EU and the UK, however, a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal could involve the UK lifting the long-standing ban on US beef.

These figures, based on recently published data from the UK and the US, come shortly after Ted McKinney, US Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs USDA, said in Oxford that he was “sick and tired” of hearing Britain’s concerns about chlorine washed chicken and US food standards. Suzi Shingler of the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics said “If Mr McKinney wants something to worry about other than chlorine washed chicken, he might want to turn his attention to the extraordinarily high levels of antibiotics used in US meat production. Our investigation shows that US cattle farmers
are massively overusing antibiotics. This demonstrates the huge advantages of British beef which is often from grass-reared animals, whereas US cattle are usually finished in intensive feedlots. Trade negotiators who may be tempted to lift the ban on US beef should not only be considering the impact of growth hormones, but also of antibiotic resistance due to rampant antibiotic use.”

A recent report by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) has estimated global farm antibiotic use by continent [2]and found use by animal weight about 20% lower in Africa than in Europe. However, in the Americas it was about 80% higher than in Europe, and in Asia Pacific about 190% higher than in Europe, although only five countries reported data from Asia Pacific. Peter Melchett, Policy Director of the Soil Association said: “UK farmers have finally begun to cut their antibiotic use, and the government needs to be careful it does not undermine this progress by allowing imports from countries that are not respecting UK and EU standards.”

Nick Palmer, Head of Policy at Compassion in World Farming, commented, “The extremely high use of antibiotics in US farming increases the likelihood of resistant bacteria emerging in farm animals. When these antibiotic-resistant bacteria spread to the human population via farm workers and consumers, and cause infections, antibiotics often fail to work. As British consumers increasingly reject the factory farming approach that dominates US production, we are concerned that the British Government may cave in to US demands in the desperation to sign new trade deals post-Brexit.”

Globally, scientists estimate that 66% of all antibiotics are used in farm animals, and they forecast use will increase by a further 53% by 2030 if the number of farm animals continues to grow and farming becomes more intensive [3]. The government-commissioned Review on Antimicrobial Resistance projects that by 2050, if business as usual continues, antibiotic resistance will kill 10 million people a year worldwide and cost the global economy $100 trillion [4].

Kath Dalmeny of the Sustain food and health charity, and author of ‘Ten red lines for UK trade deals for food, farming and fishing’ [5] said: “Trade negotiators are champing at the bit to open up new markets for US meat and using the excuse of ‘cheapness’ to counter health concerns. But cheap meat comes at a high price – often lower standards of cleanliness, animal welfare and high use of antibiotics. Any trade deals must aim to support high standards so that human and animal health and welfare are protected.”
Alongside concerns relating to antibiotic use, campaigners are also highlighting other food safety risks that must be considered in the ongoing trade talks, such as those listed in the recently published ‘Top 10 Food Safety Risks Posed by a Future Transatlantic Trade Deal’ from the Soil Association [6].

Notes to Editors
[1] For full details of the Alliance calculations see http://www.saveourantibiotics.org/media/1789/us-and-uk-antibiotic-use-comparison-calculations-080218.pdf The calculations are based primarily on new species data published by the UK’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate and the US’s Food and Drug Administration, supplemented by some recent data published by some British supermarkets.
[3] Van Boeckel et al. 2017. Reducing antimicrobial use in food animals, Science,
[4] https://amr-review.org
[5] https://www.sustainweb.org/blogs/jan18_10_red_lines_for_food_trade_deals/
[6] https://www.soilassociation.org/media/14610/top-10-food-safety-risks-posed-by-a-us-uktrade-