A new report Case Study of a Health Crisis finds there has been an alarming rise in new farm superbugs, especially MRSA and E. coli that are passing to humans.
The report links this rise to the fact that nearly 50% of all antibiotics are used in farming and argues that one of the fundamental causes of food and animal-related antibiotic resistance is factory farming.
Most pigs, poultry and dairy cows receive antibiotics routinely, whether or not they are unwell, with some European pigs spending an average of 20% of their lives on antibiotics.
Over the last decade entirely new E.coli and MRSA superbugs have become major problems on European farms due to the overuse of antibiotics.
These are spreading between farms and also passing to humans, making it more difficult for doctors to treat affected patients, with potentially fatal delays in identifying an effective antibiotic when needed.
The recently founded Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics - consisting of Compassion in World Farming, the Soil Association and Sustain - has launched its first report to coincide with the expected publication of the European Commission's 5-year strategy on antimicrobial resistance (17 Nov) and European Antibiotic Awareness Day (18 Nov).
New antibiotics are now rarely developed and the Alliance aims to help 'Save Our Antibiotics', by preventing their overuse within EU farming.
The Alliance is calling for the overall use of antibiotics on EU farms to be halved by 2015 - with an emphasis on ending all routine, prophylactic use. It also wants major restrictions placed on the farm use of antibiotics that are 'critically important' in human medicine.
Key recommendations to curb antibiotic use on farms in the EU are offered.
Veterinary surgeons must shoulder the responsibility of implementing reduction strategies but all of us - farmers, retailers, consumers, doctors and regulators - need to play our part in ensuring a farming industry that is not reliant on the use of non-essential antibiotics.
Farm animals in the EU are being routinely treated with antibiotics as a cheap insurance policy. This indiscriminate overuse on the factory farm makes a world without effective antibiotics for humans ever more likely.Joyce D'Silva, Director of Public Affairs at Compassion in World Farming
The report recognises the essential need to retain antibiotic treatment for sick animals, to prevent suffering and maintain good animal welfare, but argues this too can be significantly reduced by improving the conditions under which most farm animals are kept.
Organic farmers have shown it is entirely possible to raise healthy animals with minimal use of antibiotics. We cannot get rid of factory farming overnight, but we could immediately start a Europe-wide programme of change to look after animals in ways that naturally keep them healthy.
Factory farmed animals are kept in confined, crowded and stressful conditions. This leads to the suppression of their immune systems and rapid spread of disease. The report provides clear evidence showing that ultimately consumers are paying the price for this.Richard Young, Soil Association Policy Advisor
In October the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on the European Commission to address the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance on farms passing to humans.
Professor Christopher Butler, Head of the Institute of Primary Care and Public Health at Cardiff University who wrote the foreword of the report, says:
Antibiotics have saved numerous lives and have rightly been termed 'wonder' drugs. However, more and more antibiotics have been consumed for less and less benefit in many settings. All too often, antibiotics are prescribed in situations where the risk of harm outweighs the chance of benefit from the antibiotics.
A significant contribution comes from over-reliance on routine use of antibiotics in intensive farming. It is not tenable to regard animal medicine as having marginal relevance to human health. Systems are interlinked. The challenge now is to focus on antibiotic stewardship programmes that take a holistic view, incorporating all domains of antibiotic use.