The massive increase in the use of antibiotics in pig and poultry farming could be producing drug-resistant bacteria which can pass from animals to humans, the Soil Association said yesterday.
In the first of four reports, entitled Use and Misuse of Antibiotics in UK Agriculture, the organic-farming pressure group claimed that use of tetracycline, one of the most popular antibiotics, has risen by 1,500 per cent in 30 years.
Penicillin-type drug use has increased by 600 per cent over the same period, it said.
Fears of the risk to human health have prompted calls from Sweden for a Europe-wide ban on four antibiotics used in animal feed. A decision is expected from the European Union's Council of Ministers on 14 December. But the association said that this would not go far enough, and feared it would lead farmers to double the amount of other antibiotics which they use.
The association is calling for a ban on all non-medical use of antibiotics in agriculture and more careful monitoring by the Government.
It also accused farmers of ignoring the fact that supposedly harmless feed additives allowed under EU regulations all have some power to control disease. It said: "Until now the industry has kept very quiet about this, since to openly admit the therapeutic value of growth-promoting antibiotics would be to expose the lie behind the whole industry."
Richard Young, the campaigns and policy co-ordinator for the association, said: "Apparently harmless feed additives - even just 100g per ton - can encourage bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics. These then pass to humans through food or even through handling uncooked food."
Mr Young said the development of drug-resistant bacteria posed serious dangers for hospital patients who may have poor immune systems or who already have an infection for which drugs have become ineffective.
In food, he said, the danger is of an increase in drug-resistant salmonellas, caused by the use of therapeutic drugs in livestock production.
The basic food for any domesticated farm animal can never reproduce the varied diet its ancestors would have found in the wild, so supplements are needed.
Pigs, for instance, are unable to produce the amino acids they need for growth from a purely cereal diet, so fish meal and soya protein are added.
Next comes the "designer" aspect of modern farming, such as the modern consumer's desire for lean meat. Meat produced naturally is marbled with fat. But fat, which is concentrated energy, takes a long time to produce. So, if cattle are fed growth hormones they add muscle quickly, just as athletes do, without fat having time to develop. The result is lean steak, but also controversy, as with steroid-taking sportsmen.
In the EU, growth hormones in livestock production were banned in 1986, but they are still used in the United States and in other countries which export large quantities of meat.
Intensive farming causes problems by keeping animals, or birds, in a confined space, aiding the rapid spread of disease. This is also why antibiotics have become an everyday addition to farm diets.
Peter Rudman, the animal health and welfare adviser for the National Farmers' Union said: "The report seems to be based on a large number of misconceptions.
"It seems to focus on concerns about illegal use of antibiotics and we cannot defend anyone using substances illegally. We are supporting the commission proposal [on banning four named antibiotics] but we think it should be done slowly otherwise it would cause harm to the animals. Let's look carefully at it. It has to be a gradual process."Reuse content