Antibiotics are given to both treat existing disease and to prevent it. Like us, animals are more likely to become ill if they are stressed, overworked or kept in filthy, overcrowded conditions. It is difficult to think of places that fit those criteria more than pig and chicken factory farms across Britain. Viva! has filmed at dozens of pig (and chicken) farms over the past few years and we found suffering, filth and degradation at them all.
It is little wonder that these animals become ill.
Viva!’s report, Pig Farming: The Inside Story (www.viva.org.uk/pigreport) explains why an incredible range of diseases run rife in the UK – including respiratory disease, pleuropneumonia, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (‘Blue ear’), porcine respiratory disease complex (PRDC), pneumonic pasteurellosis, scours (severe diarrhoea), Salmonella, E. coli, lameness, swine dysentery, meningitis, Glässer’s disease, post-weaning multisystemic wasting syndrome (PMWS) and porcine dermatitis and nephropathy syndrome (PDNS).
Further, piglets are weaned far too early, being taken away from their mothers at just three weeks old. This usually leads to digestive problems and diarrhoea (scours) – which are entirely avoidable. Antibiotics are routinely given in pig farms from the moment the piglets are weaned. On a British farm Viva! visited in 2016, investigators found piglets being treated for scours with colistin – an antibiotic that is the last line of defence for human health. Amazingly, the use of colistin on British pig farms is still legal despite scientists finding a gene in pigs, which makes bacteria resistant to it.
Factory farmed animals are treated with antibiotics to tackle the diseases that are caused by the terrible conditions in which they are imprisoned. In other words, their use and overuse is largely avoidable – by ending factory farming, by not buying the meat. However, antibiotic use is increasing in farmed animals. It is not being reduced or prohibited because factory farming would collapse without it. Due to an increasing global demand for meat, it’s predicted that between 2010 and 2030, antibiotic use in cattle, chicken and pigs worldwide will increase by 67 per cent.
Antibiotic growth promoters have been banned in the European Union since 2006. However, they are still used in other parts of the world. A report from the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) in 2019 found that 45 countries out of 155 that provided data are still giving antibiotics to animals as a way of fattening them up, despite the fact the practice is banned in many parts of the world. Key antimicrobials, classified by the WHO as ‘highest priority critically important antimicrobials’, including colistin, continue to be used routinely in several regions for this purpose.
When used at low levels, some antibiotics have the side effect of promoting growth in animals (and Viva! have filmed these on British farms in 2016). In the UK, there have been some improvements, with antibiotic sales for use in animals falling by 53 per cent between 2014 and 2018. However, it seems likely that some producers are sidestepping the ban on growth promoters (saying that the drugs are being used to prevent disease) and this is driving antibiotic resistance.
Lord Jim O’Neill’s 2016 government-commissioned review on antimicrobial resistance concluded: “In light of this information, we believe that there is sufficient evidence showing that the world needs to start curtailing the quantities of antimicrobials used in agriculture now”.
Perhaps the ultimate irony is the fact that without antibiotics factory farms could not exist, yet once antibiotic resistance is complete the animals on those farms will also not respond to drugs. It will mean the end of factory farming, but by then it would also herald the post-antibiotic age for the human race.
How many antibiotics are given to farmed animals in the UK?
In 2017, of the 773 tonnes of antibiotics dispensed in the UK, 36 per cent were sold for use in animals (of which less than 10 per cent were used in companion animals and horses) the remaining 64 per cent were for human use. A lower proportion than in many other countries, but still a considerable amount (226 tonnes in 2018).
In the UK, the species with the highest level of antibiotic use, by far, is pigs.
Antibiotic usage in 2018 by food-producing animal species:
pigs (89 per cent coverage) 76 tonnes (110 mg/kg)
turkeys, broiler and ducks (90 per cent) 16 tonnes (47, 12 and 1.6 mg/kg respectively)
laying hens (90 per cent) 3.2 tonnes (0.63 bird days*)
game birds (90 per cent) 9.7 tonnes (no data for individual use)
salmon (100 per cent) 1 tonne (6.5 mg/kg)
trout (90 per cent) 0.2 tonnes (13 mg/kg)
dairy (30 per cent) 4.9 tonnes (17 mg/kg)
beef (4-5.5 per cent) 1-1.1 tonnes (21-25 mg/kg)
*A bird-day is the average daily population of birds in the Lion scheme (including breeding birds and pullets in rear) multiplied by 365.
The data above was collected and provided to the Veterinary Medicines Directorate by the animal industry on a voluntary basis. A disappointing aspect to the figures is the comparatively low percentage coverage of the data in the dairy and beef sectors (meaning the results should be interpreted with caution) and the complete absence of sheep data. It is impossible to get an accurate picture of what is going on without better coverage.