An influential body of government advisers - charged with reporting on the effects of using antibiotics in farming - has told ministers that several widely used drugs should be banned from animal feed.
Ministers are expected to make an announcement on phasing out the antibiotics soon. They fear that unless action is taken, the superbugs could spark a BSE-style health scare.
Last week the Government was lobbied by farmers and feed producers not to ban the antibiotics, which are often added to chicken, pig, and cattle feed.
The move would lead to a massive overhaul in farming practices and would be a blow to intensive agriculture and drug companies. But it would be welcomed by public health advisers, consumer groups, and environmentalists.
"Antibiotics bring enormous benefits to humanity; we shouldn't squander them just to make animals grow faster," said Richard Young of the Soil Association. Government advisers warn that superbugs, which could mutate and become more virulent, could lead to incurable illnesses.
Last year the Government's Public Health Laboratory Service reported that one in six salmonella infections - the commonest cause of food poisoning - was by a strain resistant to at least four drugs.
The Government will stop short of a ban on all growth promoting antibiotics, focusing on four - spiramycin, virginiamycin, zinc bacitracin and tylosin - which have equivalents used in human treatment.
Ministry of Agriculture officials, representing the Government, will this week vote with their European counterparts on introducing an EU- wide ban on the growth promoting antibiotics.
"This is going to change the whole state of play with intensive farming," said Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth. "It could be very positive for animal welfare and human health."
Experts on the Working Group on Microbial Resistance in Relation to Food Safety, which has studied antibiotic resistance in farming, also want vets to stop prescribing so many antibiotics to treat sick animals.
And they warn that ignorance of the level of antibiotic use in farming is making proper assessment of the effects difficult. They want an official monitoring system set up to keep track.
Sources on the working group say that the advice will not hurt farmers - already hit by BSE and low prices for meat - as most antibiotics used in agriculture have no implications for human health.Reuse content