Agriculture needs to get serious about antibiotic usage

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The fact that a number of important, disease-causing bacteria are now resistant to almost all antibiotics is giving medical professionals around the world serious cause-for-concern.

No direct linkage has been identified between the evolution of ‘super bugs’ and the use of medicines on-farm. However, this is not the relevant issue.

The reality is that the public at large is concerned about the perceived over-use of antibiotics, across the board. And, it is against this backdrop that the farming industry should be developing its strategies regarding the future use of anti-microbials within the various livestock sectors.

The Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA) was established to actively address the anti-microbial challenge. Its upcoming annual conference will be marked by the unveiling of the UK farming industry’s new sector-specific targets for antibiotic use.

The past 15 months have seen a RUMA task force working to identify meaningful objectives to reduce, refine or replace antibiotic usage. This follows the UK government’s commitment to agree sector-specific targets by the end of this year.

All of this ties-in with the commitment that now exists at a global level to develop a ‘One Health Strategy’, involving both veterinarians and human health professionals, where the overall use of antibiotics is concerned.

The requirement for local farmers to keep a medicines’ book, as part of the current quality assurance schemes, gives agriculture a degree of cover, where antibiotics are concerned. But will this be deemed to be a sufficient response to the anti-microbial challenge that is coming down the track? I doubt it.

Where dairy is concerned, many vets are now talking-up the benefits of selective dry cow therapy. But this management option only works on farms, where milk recording is routinely practised.

However, a Co Tyrone-based vet told me recently that unless this approach is taken on a widespread basis, he worries about the general availability of antibiotic-based dry cow therapies in a few years’ time.

He also made it very clear that such restrictions would be specifically introduced on the back of growing concern regarding bacterial resistance to anti-microbials.

Northern Ireland’s food industry exports 80% of its entire output. It’s conceivable that freedom from antibiotic residues could be made a standard requirement by many importing countries in the not too distant future.

This is a potential development that farmers and industry leaders alike need to take careful note of right now.