© The EcologistCampaigners want to cut antibiotic use by 50 per cent in pigs, poultry and other livestock
Scientists in new warning on post-antibiotic age as campaigners call for stronger controls on excessive use in intensive farming

The world is being pushed towards the unthinkable scenario of untreatable infections, warns a new paper published in the medical journal Lancet, blaming a decline in new drug discoveries and the rising numbers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

In the EU alone, 25,000 patients die every year from infections caused by drug resistant bacteria.

As well as investment into new antibiotics, there are growing calls for a crackdown on the misuse of existing antibiotics.

The biggest problem is seen as unnecessary use in human medicine but, the excessive use of antibiotics in intensive farming units, particularly pig and poultry farms, is seen as a growing threat.

Scientists in new warning on post-antibiotic age as campaigners call for stronger controls on excessive use in intensive farming
Scientists say antimicrobial resistance may also be passing between animals and humans, making the need to cut unnecessary use in farming even more urgent. The World Health Organisation says drug use in farm animals plays a 'significant role' in spreading antibiotic-resistant salmonella and campylobacter infections in humans.

Last month, MEPs voted in favor of a resolution calling for a ban on the prohylactic use (given as a preventative measure before they get sick) of antibiotics in livestock farming.

The use of antibiotics was only morally justified if it was to 'cure a problem', German MEP Dagmar Roth-Behrendt, a member of the committee of MEPs that put forward the resolution, told the Ecologist. She said the farming industry was 'damaging the reputation of farmers' and putting 'public trust confidence at risk' by its failure to restrict the use of antibiotics.

An EU-wide action plan, published by the European Commission this week, stopped short of proposing stricter controls on the farming sector's use of antibiotics - most MEPs expect a compromise rather than an outright ban when proposals eventually reach the EU Parliament for a vote in the next year.

Animal welfare campaigners have been calling this week for a 50 per cent cut in antibiotic use on farms, saying the alarming discovery of new strains of the E.coli and MRSA on farms, resistant to existing antibiotics, was due to the overuse of antibiotics.

However, within the farming community there is strong opposition to new restrictions on antibiotic use. The NFU's European spokesperson Dawn Howard said prophylactic treatment was needed in some cases to keep livestock fit and healthy.

In an apparent reference to laxer regulations in some countries, she said a 'robust enforcement of the current regulations should be the first step to encourage all member states to tackle the issue'.

Along with poultry, intensive pig farming is one of the biggest users of antibiotics (together making up 95 per cent of the total used in farming), but industry body, the National Pig Association (NPA), said the focus should be on responsible use rather than banning.

'Do you wait until your animals are suffering before you use them? It's a difficult call but antibiotics have to be part of the toolbox,' said NPA general manager Zoe Davies.

The main veterinary body in the UK, the British Veterinary Association (BVA), agreed with the need continue to allow the use antibiotics to prevent illness as well as treating sick animals. But it believed awareness of the growing crisis of antimicrobial resistance was low within the farming sector.

As a first step for gaining public confidence and showing it was serious about tackling the problem, the BVA re-iterated its recent call for a ban on the advertising of antibiotics to farmers. Farmers argue vets want to protect their deals with drug companies but, the BVA says the adverts lead farmers to put pressure on vets to prescribe drugs unnecessarily.

So far the farming industry, with the support of government, have blocked any ban.

'Awareness of health and welfare is getting better within the farming sector,' said BVA president Carl Padgett, 'but unless we are seen to be putting our house in order we will lose the access to drugs.'