Expert Spotlight: 5 Questions with Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics

We talk a lot about what is going on in the U.S., but we also love the opportunity to spotlight our colleagues around the world! This month we interviewed the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, a coalition of health, medical, farming, environmental and civil society organizations from across the European Union. Campaign Manager Suzi Shingler discusses the Alliance’s work calling on the United Kingdom, food retailers and European policymakers to protect antibiotics.

1. We follow your work in the UK and Europe, but for our readers who aren’t familiar, can you tell us about your alliance?

We are an Alliance of 63 organizations from across Europe from a variety of sectors, all concerned with the misuse of antibiotics in farming. Our aim is to help find long-term solutions to the problem that are positive for human and animal health, in ways that contribute to a fair and sustainable food system. We've been going almost 10 years and were founded by three UK charities (Compassion in World Farming, Soil Association and Sustain) who still oversee the strategic direction of the Alliance. So through our founding charities we have a strong farming heritage and a huge amount of expertise to help us achieve our goals.

2. We are impressed with news that the UK has decreased unnecessary antibiotic use in its pork and poultry sectors. What’s your perspective on how the UK has succeeded in doing so? Is it leaders such as the UK’s Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies or the UK Review of Antimicrobial Resistance continually voicing concerns? Consumers? Farmers?

The UK has done really well in recent years in pork and poultry to make such significant reductions in antibiotic usage. How it happened was quite a team effort, though I think the thing that really started it was the leadership of the UK government in producing the world-class O'Neil review. This report has influenced so much, and in no uncertain terms said to agribusiness, "you must do something now." So industry listened and has reacted admirably. We still have much more to do, however, especially with our legislation. When we leave the European Union next year there are concerns that we have weak legislation in this area, and relying on industry initiatives puts us in a precarious position where antibiotic usage may creep up again if our food system in the UK faces new challenges because of all the things that may (or may not!) happen after Brexit.

3. Knowing that there is more work that remains, what do you think farmers and supermarkets can do to reduce use of unnecessary antibiotics?

On the farmer side of things there is an increased focus on health and preventing disease. More could be done by working in partnership with vets to plan for health rather, than to focus on reaction strategies to inevitable illnesses. We are encouraging farmers to look at farming systems where antibiotic usage has traditionally always been low, such as more extensive types of practices, or systems such as organic, and to learn how health is achieved by farming in these ways. We have always maintained that intensive practices, prolonged confinement and inability to express natural behaviors are all part of the problem which leads to increased antibiotic usage. The global food system is in crisis, not just on the antibiotics front, and we cannot maintain business as usual. Things need to change, and looking at the way we raise animals for food is a good place to start. Supermarkets have huge influence over their supply chains, to a large degree they control the prices and make huge profits for their shareholders, where farmers receive little benefit for improving welfare standards on their farms. It's a complex system, but a good angle to look at it is to ask how transparent the supermarkets are being when it comes to antibiotic use in their supply chains, and how much they are willing to contribute to change a food system which they have had a huge part in shaping.

4. We see that you coordinated leading scientists in the UK to urge the government to reign in unnecessary antibiotic uses in farming. Was it successful?

Yes it was, and the letter received lots of media attention. Since that letter was sent in 2016 there has been a 27 percent reduction in antibiotic use across the UK agricultural sector, which was the result of political pressure and industry response. The letter helped to emphasize to our government, in a very public way, the significant concern of medics that not enough was being done to curb antibiotic use on farms, while clinicians were seeing increasing amounts of antibiotic resistance in their patients. Whilst it's not practicable to determine how much human resistance is a direct result of farm use, the fact the use was so high while patients were suffering was, and remains, a no-brainer to medical professionals. 

5. Why do you think it’s important that healthcare professionals voice their concerns on what is happening in the agricultural sector?

We all have a right to know how our food is produced. We put it in our bodies, feed it to our children, it affects our environment, so there is no excuse for anything about food production to be shrouded in secrecy. Antibiotic resistance is a public health issue, so it makes sense that healthcare professionals are influential in what happens with our very precious medicines on farms. It's sometimes hard to fully grasp the scale of the issue, and I think it's fair to say that globally, healthcare professionals in particular are becoming increasingly alarmed at rates of resistance. We must avoid a post-antibiotic era of medicine, and agriculture plays a huge part in whether or not it will be a reality.