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Warning on post-Brexit antibiotic use

Scientists fear mass medication of livestock if the UK diverges from EU rules

Mark Gould

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Scientists warn that health and environmental protection are at risk post-Brexit if the UK diverges from European Union (EU) regulations and allows preventative mass medication of livestock with antibiotics to continue, according to a new report.

Swann song for routine antibiotic use, 50 years on? a report by the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics warns that increased competition post-Brexit from imports produced to lower standards could undermine and reverse recent reductions in British farm antibiotic use.


The report states that if the government pursues trade deals with countries farming to lower standards, health and environmental protections may be threatened.

The report is published exactly 50 years after a seminal government report – the Swann report – concluded that the overuse of antibiotics in farming was a threat to human health which had already caused human deaths.

Fifty years later, the Alliance says intensive farming is still associated with major disease problems, and mass medication with antibiotics, or other forms of medication, remains common.

But it adds that in recent years, many farmers have voluntarily limited preventative antibiotic use, which has contributed to a 50% reduction in antibiotic use. Despite this good progress, use remains higher than it was before Swann.

In 2018, the European Parliament voted to end the practice of treating groups of healthy animals with antibiotics. The ban will come into force in 2022, after the UK’s planned exit from the EU.

So far, the UK has refused to commit to the same ban after Brexit, despite senior medics calling on the then Health and Environment secretaries to do so in 2018.

Cóilín Nunan, scientific adviser at the Alliance, said: “The good progress that has been made in the UK in recent years through voluntary action is now at risk if the UK decides to undercut EU regulations and open the British market to cheap imports produced with very high antibiotic use. Increased competition may convince some farmers to reverse cuts in antibiotic use, presenting us all with the double threat of low-quality imports and a race to the bottom in UK farming.

“Any future government must implement a complete ban on preventative mass medication as a step towards sustainable and responsible farm antibiotic use. Future trade deals should only allow imports produced to UK antibiotic and animal-welfare standards and import tariffs should reflect the benefits of higher-welfare systems, such as grass-fed or organic”.

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