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UK poultry: Disease challenges drive antibiotic use up

Antibiotic usage in the UK’s poultry meat sector rose for the second year running as farmers faced disease challenges.

Antibiotic usage across the poultry sector has now risen from a historic low of 14.4mg/pcu in 2017 to 16.2mg/pcu in 2018 to 19.7mg/pcu last year, accounting for 9.33% of the total antibiotics licensed for food producing animals, according to the Government’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD).

Poultry farmers in the UK are adding more antibiotics to the water to ensure the welfare of their flocks. Photo: Henk Riswick
Poultry farmers in the UK are adding more antibiotics to the water to ensure the welfare of their flocks. Photo: Henk Riswick

Chicken accounts for the overwhelming majority of poultry meat production and last year 17.5mg/pcu of antibiotics were used to treat broilers compared with 12.4mg/pcu the year before. Use in turkeys had fallen from a high of 219.5mg/pcu in 2014 to just 42mg/pcu last year.

Delivering excellence in bird health and welfare is the foundation of responsible use of antibiotics and is about so much more than reduction targets.”

Drop in use of critically important antibiotics

Despite the rises, the British Poultry Council in its 2020 Antibiotic Stewardship report said that in the past 2 years there had been 76% reduction in the total use of antibiotics and a 97.3% fall in the use of critically important antibiotics. Richard Griffiths, BPC chief executive, stressed that despite the recent rises the poultry meat sector remained under government-approved targets for both turkeys and chicken (50mg/pcu and 25mg/pcu).

Antibiotic Reduction - special publication
Moving away from antibiotics can be challenging and requires a new way of thinking. This special edition explores the latest methods for raising healthy livestock without the use of preventive antibiotics.

Zero antibiotic use is neither ethical nor sustainable

Griffiths said poultry farmers and vets needed antibiotics in their toolbox to protect the health and welfare of birds: “Delivering excellence in bird health and welfare is the foundation of responsible use of antibiotics and is about so much more than reduction targets. Zero use is neither ethical nor sustainable as it goes against a farmer’s duty to address any health and welfare issues.

“The British poultry meat sector stands committed to upholding the UK’s position at the forefront of international efforts to keep antibiotics effective for future generations and tackling antimicrobial resistance. UK poultry meat producers have stopped all preventative treatments and the highest priority antibiotics that are critically important for humans are used only as a ‘last resort’ for chickens and turkeys.”

US/UK antibiotic use in poultry examined
Antibiotic use in turkeys in the United States is about 9 times as high as the use in UK birds, while US chickens are given twice as much antibiotics as in the UK.

The campaign group Alliance to Save our Antibiotics says new European Union rules on farm antibiotic use, which come into force in 2022, will prohibit the use of all forms of routine antibiotic use in farming, including preventative group treatments. It says that the UK Government is yet to unequivocally commit to adopting the key changes in legislation.