Jeremy Laurance: The evidence the food industry would rather ignore

Medical Life
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Our front page splash on Friday rattled a few cages. It was headlined "Death wish" – about the overuse of antibiotics in livestock farming and the growing threat to humans from resistant bacteria – and the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which represents farmers, took exception to it.

Steve Dean, chief executive of the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, complained that the article had "overplayed" the role of farm antibiotics in the development of antibiotic resistance, that there was "no evidence" such use caused "any resistant infections" in humans, and that the recent emergence of MRSA in cows in the UK "cannot be blamed" on recent trends in antibiotic use. He added it was "speculation" that the recent outbreak of E Coli in Germany had come from animals.

Mr Dean, who happens to be a breeder of border terriers and was recently elected chairman of the Kennel Club, seems remarkably relaxed about the use of antibiotics in farming. It was the tone of his letter that surprised me – not for what it said but for what it didn't say.

Scientists worldwide have recognised the growth of antibiotic resistance as a global problem fuelled by the overuse of antibiotics – in human medicine and in agriculture. The first case of a new type of MRSA was identified last month in cows in the UK, and the German outbreak of an antibiotic-resistant strain of E Coli hospitalised more than 3,000 people and claimed 39 lives. But these are not developments, apparently, that cause Defra to lose any sleep.

Contrast their response with that from the Health Protection Agency, whose priority is human health, not farmers' livelihoods. In its response it said the use of antibiotics in animals "does concern the HPA, as it adds to the total burden of resistance."

Former Government Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson warned in 2008 of "irresponsible antibiotic use in the agricultural sector" and that "resistant bacteria developing in animals could pose a threat to people". But for Mr Dean there is "no evidence" of resistant infections in humans developing as a result of the use of antibiotics in animals.

This difference in emphasis – I put it no higher than that – calls to mind the spat between the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Defra's predecessor, over the mad cow disease scandal in the 1990s. The former gave priority to public health while the latter sought to protect its traditional clients in agriculture – and the two departments were later sued by the families of the human victims of BSE for failing in their duty as regulators of the food industry.

Could history be about to repeat itself? We must fervently hope not.