The report, ‘E.coli superbugs on farms and food’, estimates there were 750,000–1,500,000 cases of E.coli infections in 2011, resulting in nearly 40,000 cases of blood poisoning and nearly 8,000 deaths. This represents a fourfold increase since the 1990s.
It warns that E.coli’s resistance to antibiotics is also on the increase, with the Health Protection Agency warning that it was unlikely new antibiotics will be developed to treat infections. A new strain of extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL) E.coli is identified as particularly concerning, due to its virulence and resistance, with patients infected with this strain more than three times as likely to die as those with other E.coli infections.
The report blames the rising E.coli epidemic on the use of antibiotics on UK livestock farms. It points out the use of modern cephalosporin antibiotics, which most strongly encourage ESBL E.coli, has increased sixfold since 2000, despite falling livestock numbers, and says the prevalence of ESBL E.coli has increased dramatically on British farms over the past seven years.
The report recommends phasing out the preventative use of antibiotics in healthy animals and halving the overall use of antibiotics on farms within five years, moving towards higher-welfare and less intensive production systems, reducing the use of modern cephalosporins and fluoroquinolones and prohibiting off-label use, prohibiting the advertising of antibiotics to farmers in the UK and ensuring all adverts to veterinarians are factual and not emotive.
Richard Young, Soil Association policy advisor and co-author of the report, said: “Just about every non-organic chicken in the UK is still routinely put on antibiotics from the day it is hatched. The UK does not have an effective strategy for addressing the rising levels of antibiotic resistance on farms and food, and is the only EU country still allowing antibiotics to be advertised to farmers.”
The report has been supported by leading scientists and vets. Professor Peter Collignon, director of the Infectious Diseases Unit and Microbiology Department at Canberra Hospital, Australia, who wrote the foreword of the report, said: “It is very important that we stop multi-resistant bacteria developing in food animals to prevent their spread to people. To do that, we need to address the issue of inappropriate use of antibiotics in farming, just as much as in the health profession.”
Dr Dai Grove-White from the School of Veterinary Science, Liverpool University, said: “It is essential that all the relevant stakeholders – namely governments, farmers, veterinary surgeons, retailers and consumers – participate in this debate to ensure the protection of both human and animal health and allow farming to rise to the inevitable challenges of the next 50 years without jeopardising human health.”