A History of Antibiotic Abuse

Tackling farm antibiotic use: a history of failure

Tuberculosis patients from St. Thomas' Hospital, 1920s

See our antibiotics timeline for more

There has been a pattern of failing government strategies in the UK to tackle the overuse of antibiotics in farming.

In 1968 the UK Swann Committee was established after serious outbreaks of multi-drug resistant salmonella food poisoning were linked to the use of antibiotics in livestock production.

The committee recommended that all antibiotics which are important in human medicine should be banned as growth promoters in farming. As a result, in the early 1970s the use of penicillin and tetracyclines were banned as growth promoters. An EU ban on all remaining antibiotic growth promoters was implemented in 2006.

The same antibiotics, however, could still be used for routine disease prevention or treatment, often at the same doses previously used for growth promotion. Read our report "Swann song" for routine antibiotic use, 50 years on? for more about this landmark review.

Farm antibiotic use continued to increase

This meant the use of these antibiotics in animal feed continued to increase. By 2012, farm use of penicillin-type antibiotics had increased five-fold since the growth promoter ban, and the use of tetracyclines had increased ten-fold.

In 2014, total UK veterinary sales of antibiotics licensed only for food animals also increased by 4%, and total sales in of antibiotics classified as “critically important” in human medicine had increased by 3% to a new record high.

O'Neill review 2015

The O’Neill report published in 2015, recommended measures to tackle antibiotic resistance, including a target for reducing the overall veterinary use of antibiotics and strict oversight on farm use of antibiotics which are critical for human health.

These proposals demonstrated that the international community was waking up to the risks of farm antibiotic use. Read our response to the O’Neill report here.

2020 and beyond

Since 2015 there have been reductions in farm antibiotic use in the UK and a number of European countries. In the UK the use of antibiotics on farms has fallen by 50% over the last four years. More reductions can be achieved in the UK by widespread improvements to the baseline standards for farm animal welfare. Read more about the solutions in our 2017 report, Real Farming Solutions to antibiotic misuse. 



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