Some major food-service companies like McDonalds and Subway are “setting the agenda” on the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals, by pledging to use meat from livestock that have never received antibiotics.

That was the message from Patrick Wall, Professor of Public Health at UCD, speaking at the MSD Animal Health conference in the RDS, Dublin today (Thursday, May 25).

“In the US, McDonalds has announced it is moving to antibiotic-free chicken and Subway already claims it is using antibiotic-free chicken and has committed to do the same with turkey over the next two to three years, and with beef and pork by 2025,” he said.

The question is: Will they be able to deliver on this pledge?

Wall said that 80% of antibiotics used in agriculture are used in intensively-farmed animals.

Irish farmers use one-eighth the amount of antibiotics used by farmers in Spain on a per animal basis; which is the highest user of antibiotics in the EU.

Farmers in Italy use seven times more antibiotics than Irish farmers; while the average German farmer uses three times more than the average Irish producer, it was revealed.

While overall antibiotic use in other EU countries is still approximately 50% higher than in Ireland, it has been reduced by more than 50% over the past seven years.

In the Netherlands and Belgium, use of critically important antibiotics (CIAs) has been cut by more than 90%. CIAs are products such as third and fourth generation cephalosporin’s and fluoroquinolones, which are vital components in human medicine.

Use of antibiotics in Ireland

The use of antibiotics in Irish livestock is among the lowest in Europe, veterinary surgeon and MSD Animal Health Director Fergal Morris said in his address to today’s conference.

This fact puts Irish agriculture in a good position to deal with EU legislation on potential restrictions on antibiotic use in food animals; which is due to be introduced over the next three years.

Meanwhile, Wall also spoke about the topic of antibiotic resistance in humans and animals, and the potential threat of ‘super bugs‘ with no antibiotics to treat them.

Antibiotics are a precious resource. There are not many new ones in the pipeline and the more we use them the faster we will lose them.

Irish grass-based milk, beef and sheep production and the relatively-low levels of intensive pig and poultry production have been recognised as a significant factor in the lower levels of antibiotic usage in Ireland.

While Ireland is at the lower-end of the antibiotic-usage league because of its relatively low concentration of factory farming, there is still no room for complacency, explained Wall.

Antibiotic-resistant ‘super bugs’ are on the rise. Resistance is not a pathogen problem, nor is it a poultry or a pig problem. It is a people problem.

Wall stated that antibiotics should not be used as an excuse for optimum livestock husbandry. He added: “The only way to reduce antibiotic use to the minimum is to have healthier livestock. If we control disease we will have no need for antibiotics.”

Morris pointed out the potential of preventative vaccines in reducing the use of antibiotics.

“Respiratory diseases in calves and weanlings and diarrhoea in young calves are the diseases which account for a large percentage of antibiotics used in dairy and beef farming.

“While some farmers use vaccines to protect against these diseases, there is scope for an increase in vaccination. More widespread vaccination against these diseases would lead to a big reduction in the use of antibiotics,” he added.

According to Wall, in the not-so-distant future, antibiotic stewardship policies, clearly demonstrating to consumers that the food they purchase has come from animals that have been treated with the minimal level, may become – and “should be” – the norm for all retailers and food-service companies.