Antibiotics (Intensive Farms): 9th January 2013

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anna Soubry)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) on securing the debate, which is on an important subject. I ​shall say at the outset that, although I just about heard all the many questions that he asked me, I can say with complete confidence that I fear that I will be unable to answer any—well, a large number of them—in my speech this afternoon, but I undertake to ensure that he receives full written answers to them all. As you will understand, Mrs Main, and as I am sure he will too, it is impossible to answer them all in this short debate, especially because it is such a technical matter, with so many important questions that require technical, detailed responses.

I must begin by saying that of course we all recognise that antimicrobial resistance poses a threat to human and animal health. I can assure my hon. Friend and others that the Government take this resistance very seriously. DEFRA and its agencies have been collaborating for many years with the Department of Health, the Health Protection Agency and the Food Standards Agency on this issue. The Government’s collective objective is to ensure that antibiotic use in animals does not become a significant clinical problem for human health. I am told that there is little evidence on antimicrobial resistance transmission routes from animals to humans. The concern is that if bacteria in food-producing and companion animals develop resistance to drugs used in human medicine, those could be transferred to humans via food or through direct contact.

Controls in the veterinary sector need to be carefully balanced to minimise undesirable animal welfare issues and not hamper the efficiency of UK food production in a way that could disadvantage the industry in relation to other countries where controls may be implemented less well or less effectively enforced. Good farm management, biosecurity measures and animal husbandry systems underpin the health and welfare of food-producing animals. When applied appropriately, they enable the use of antibiotics to be minimised. We all want and welcome that.

We agree that the routine use of antibiotics in animals is unacceptable. I am assured that relevant guidance and regulation is given to the sector to make that absolutely clear. I will ask my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to consider whether current guidance on the responsible use of antibiotics can be strengthened to make it clear that the routine administration of antibiotics is not acceptable. I am also told that intensive farming systems do not necessarily use large amounts of antibiotics. Some have high health status livestock and so use very limited quantities of antibiotics.

The Government fully appreciate that effective controls are needed in the environmental, agricultural, food production, animal and human health sectors. Failure to act promptly and comprehensively could mean that we face impending problems with implications for animal health and welfare and knock-on effects for food supply and safety, as well as, ultimately, human health and patient safety.

Although the link between antimicrobial use in animals and the spread of resistance in humans is not well understood, there is scientific consensus that the use of antimicrobials in human medicine is the main driving force for antimicrobial-resistant human infections. The majority of resistant strains affecting humans are different from those affecting animals. Bearing that in mind, we have developed an integrated strategy to tackle the ​challenge of antibiotic resistance, and resistance to other antimicrobials, such as antifungals.

We have been working with DEFRA and other stakeholders to develop a new UK five-year antimicrobial resistance strategy and action plan, which we aim to publish shortly. The strategy will address all sectors, including veterinary use. To have maximum impact, the new integrated strategy will focus on a wide range of intervention measures to safeguard human and animal health, including: promoting responsible prescribing; improving infection prevention and control; raising awareness of the problem; improving the scientific evidence base; facilitating the development of new treatments; strengthening surveillance, and strengthening collaboration, data and technology.

There is general agreement that responsible prescribing is central to slowing down the development of antimicrobial resistance in humans and animals. Antibiotics, used responsibly, remain a vital part of the veterinary surgeons’ toolbox, without which animals suffering from a bacterial infection could not be treated effectively. The use of antibiotics in veterinary medicine is controlled by veterinary prescription and is equivalent to arrangements for humans. In that way, we are encouraging the responsible use of antibiotics and minimising their routine use.

In addition, the use of antibiotics as growth promoters has been banned in the EU since 2006, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park informed us. In the dairy industry, if a cow has been treated with antibiotics, the milk should be isolated, and there is regular routine testing of tanks to ensure that there are no traces of antibiotics. Those are some of the many checks in place to ensure that antibiotics do not get into the human food chain.

Zac Goldsmith
Antibiotic use on farms is increasing not decreasing, so despite the initiatives and efforts we have heard about, the trends are heading in the wrong direction. Will my hon. Friend commit on the record to reviewing and reading the references, with which I will provide her at the end of the debate, for all the points I made in my speech and checking the science behind them, so that she is certain that the brief she received from her Department is accurate?

Anna Soubry
I am more than happy to do all those things. As my hon. Friend will appreciate, I am no expert in this field and would not pretend to be for one moment. I shall make a very important point: my briefing does not come from the Department of Health only; we work in collaboration with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

One important thing about this debate is that my hon. Friend rightly asked for a Minister from the Department of Health to respond, so I am not, as others might have thought, someone from DEFRA. Many people are concerned about whether how an animal is treated has an impact on them if they consume some or part of it. Although we might not always make too many friends in the farming industry, we are all responsible for ensuring that we know what we are putting into our bodies and feeding our families. We bear that responsibility, so we need good, informed advice. Many people, but often those with the financial means to do so, will not buy fresh meat unless they know its antecedents—that it has come from a good butcher and a good beast.​

Caroline Lucas
I am grateful to the Minister for her openness to looking at more of the evidence that the hon. Member for Richmond Park presented. Having examined the greater body of evidence, will she also consider the need for legally binding measures as well as more information and awareness raising? The trends are going in the wrong direction, and we therefore need legally binding measures.

Anna Soubry
I am sort of grateful for that intervention; I fear that I could be in terrible danger of agreeing to do almost anything, and so would be able to do nothing else, because I would spend most of my time on this. I will do all that I can. It is very important. As individuals and parents, we all should be concerned, as many of us are, about what we eat and what we feed our children and loved ones. This is as much a public health issue as an animal welfare issue.

The Government have published a code of practice on the responsible use of medicines on the farm and a leaflet on antibiotics, which, like the above code, is on the Veterinary Medicines Directorate’s website. We just have to hope and pray that such things are read, but in my experience, responsible producers pay heed to all such advice. There are also regulations.

We continue to work actively with the farming industry to promote the responsible use of antibiotics in farmed animals, and industry organisations have also developed guidance. Furthermore, I am pleased to say that the Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2011 will be changed this year to prohibit the advertising of antibiotic products to professional keepers of animals. In addition, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park mentioned, from January 2012, the British Poultry Council introduced a voluntary ban on the use of certain critically important antibiotics in chick production, which should be welcomed.

Veterinary use of antibiotics is also being addressed at a European level. It forms a significant component of both the 2011 EU action plan against the rising threats from antimicrobial resistance and the 2012 EU Council conclusions. The EU legislation on veterinary medicines is currently under revision, and the UK, with other member states and the Commission, is examining the available evidence to establish whether there is a need for additional controls on antibiotics used in animals. The Government will continue to press for measures to strengthen controls on antibiotics that are critically important for human health, to make it clear that they should be used for animals only when no effective alternatives exist.

The Veterinary Medicines Directorate at DEFRA closely monitors the use of veterinary medicines in the UK. It analyses samples from food producing animals and their products for residues of veterinary medicines and environmental contaminants. There is no conclusive scientific evidence that food-producing animals form a reservoir of infection in the UK. Food is not considered a major source of infections resistant to antibiotics. Any bacteria associated with food or the environment can be reduced by thorough washing and cooking.

As I mentioned, the scientific consensus is that veterinary use of antibiotics is not a significant driver for human multiresistant infections. However, we are keen to see greater improvements in prescribing in all sectors and ​are actively working to encourage that. A wide programme of work to tackle antimicrobial resistance has been under way across the UK in the human and animal health sectors for several years. Although much has been achieved, I fully acknowledge that there are a number of areas that require attention and more radical thinking, if we are to have an even greater impact. I am confident that the new UK strategy will move us forward in that respect.​

I undertake to write to any hon. Member who raised a question in the debate. Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend and assure him that I will answer all his questions. It now seems that I will read a great many documents and other evidence, but it is important work. If I feel that there is any need to make any changes, I will make them.