Leading Article: Another fine drugs mess

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The Independent Online
THE MOST seriously disturbing piece of news last week passed by fairly quietly. The Government's Advisory Committee on Microbial Safety of Food issued a report which revealed that the feeding of antibiotics to animals is causing the emergence of superbugs which endanger human health. This raises the alarming possibility that we will return to a world where even the most simple operation is fraught with danger because the patient may catch an untreatable infection - for superbugs are particularly prevalent in hospitals.

Today virtually all pigs, cows and chickens reared for meat are given antibiotics in their feed every day of their lives to promote growth and to prevent disease. Modern farming cannot manage without the drugs. It would not be possible to keep animals in the crowded conditions that are the norm in intensive agriculture unless they were being routinely fed the antibiotics, as otherwise disease would spread rapidly. The amounts are increasing - but nobody knows by how much. The Advisory Committee says that it tried for a year to find out, without success. Best estimates are that farm animals gobble about 453 tons a year, with the use of penicillin increasing by 600 per cent and that of tetracycline by 1,500 per cent over the last 30 years. As a result, whereas two decades ago only 5 per cent of salmonella bacteria were resistant to antibiotics, now 95 per cent are. The Government has accepted that "antimicrobial resistance is a major public health threat". Health care in the 21st century could revert to some 19th-century nightmare.

How has this come about? Resistance has been known to be a problem since 1943. As early as 1947 an Act of Parliament restricted the use of antibiotics, and yet they were made available to farmers to use as growth promoters. The last independent advisory committee report on the issue - the Swann report - was published in 1969. It recommended that the drugs should not be used in animal feed where they would lead to the development of superbugs. But the agrochemical industry mounted a campaign against it, and in 1970 the Heath government ignored or watered down its recommendations: instead of establishing the permanent antibiotics watchdog as proposed, it set up a largely powerless subcommittee of the notoriously pro-chemical Veterinary Products Committee. Ten years later, when the committee asked for more powers, the Thatcher government promptly abolished it.

Four growth-promoting antibiotics were banned by the European Union last month, but the British government has allowed a little-used antibiotic to take their place. Since 1 July the drug, Avilamycin, has been fed to virtually every broiler chicken in the country. (The first chickens fed with it will come on the market in the next few days.) The trouble is that Avilamycin is almost identical to Ziracin - a drug now being tested for use by humans and widely seen as the best chance for a decade of fighting the superbugs. So we have come full circle, with farm animals having much freer access to antibiotics than people do. Drugs that doctors are urged to use only sparingly are used profligately to make animals put on weight. And there will be no new wonder drug to solve the problem. No major new class of antibiotics has been discovered for more than 20 years.

It is no good expecting profit-driven farmers to get us out of this dilemma. Nor will vets, many of whom get 70 per cent of their income from dispensing antibiotics. Nor, it seems, will the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The story is the same on antibiotics as it was with BSE, GM foods, organophosphate pesticides and the rest. Though its remit is supposed to cover food safety, Maff always places the protection of farmers (most particularly the rich and big ones) and promotion of the food industry before anything else. Disaster after disaster is the inevitable result when a single body is responsible for both promoting an industry and regulating it.

There is a lot we could do. We could phase out the use of antibiotics in feed, as has been done in Denmark and Sweden, where agriculture ministries concentrate their efforts on monitoring and eradicating diseases rather than suppressing them with prophylactic drugs. We could give much more support to farmers (as the Scandinavians do) to help them change their ways. We could monitor the use of antibiotics for therapeutic purposes to spot over-use. But most significantly we could remove control of them from Maff and give it to the new Food Standards Agency. On the other hand, we could just continue stuffing ourselves with chemically bloated chicken. And let our children suffer the consequences.