Health and environmental protections may be at risk post-Brexit if the UK diverges from EU regulations and allows preventative mass medication of livestock with antibiotics to continue.

According to a new report by the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, increased competition post-Brexit from imports produced to lower standards could undermine and reverse recent reductions in British farm antibiotic use.

The report states that if the next government pursues trade deals with countries farming to lower standards, health and environmental protections may be threatened. It has been published exactly 50 years after a seminal government report – the Swann report – concluded that the overuse of antibiotics in farming was a threat to human health which had already caused human deaths.

The Swann report said the intensification of livestock farming had led to more disease problems and that it could not find "any excuse in logic or theory” for the practice of feeding antibiotics preventatively to groups of animals. Fifty years later, intensive farming is still associated with major disease problems, and mass medication with antibiotics, or other forms of medication, remains common.

In recent years, many farmers have voluntarily limited preventative antibiotic use, which has contributed to a 50 per cent reduction in use. Despite this good progress, use remains higher than it was before Swann.

In 2018, the European Parliament voted to end the practice of treating groups of healthy animals with antibiotics. The ban will come into force in 2022, after the UK’s planned exit from the European Union. So far, the UK has refused to commit to the same ban after Brexit, despite senior medics calling on the then Health and Environment Secretaries to do so in 2018.

Cóilín Nunan, scientific adviser at the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, said: “50 years ago the Swann committee gave in to pressure from vested interests and failed to recommend an end to preventative mass medication, even though it knew the practice was unjustifiable and the cause of a deadly outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella. Half a century later, still no one has come forward with a valid reason for allowing this misuse of antibiotics to continue.

“The good progress that has been made in the UK in recent years through voluntary action is now at risk if the UK decides to undercut EU regulations and open the British market to cheap imports produced with very high antibiotic use. Increased competition may convince some farmers to reverse cuts in antibiotic use, presenting us all with the double threat of low-quality imports and a race to the bottom in UK farming.

“Any future government must implement a complete ban on preventative mass medication as a step towards sustainable and responsible farm antibiotic use. Future trade deals should only allow imports produced to UK antibiotic and animal-welfare standards and import tariffs should reflect the benefits of higher-welfare systems, such as grass-fed or organic.”

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