Sales of antibiotics for use in livestock have reduced by 55% since 2014 to the lowest-ever recorded level, the government’s veterinary medicines directorate (VMD) confirmed today (Tuesday, November 8).

The latest UK veterinary antibiotic resistance and sales surveillance (UK-VARSS) annual report shows that in 2014, the sales of veterinary antibiotics for use in food-producing animals was 62.3 mg/kg, and in 2021 this figure stood at 28.3 mg/kg.

The report shows reductions in UK farm-level antibiotic use reported by the pig, chicken, duck and trout sectors.

Sales of antibiotics for livestock has been steadily declining since 2014, with a further 6% decrease (2.0 mg/kg) from 2020 to 2021.

In 2021 the total quantity of antibiotic active ingredient sold in the UK was 212t, the lowest sales to date.

In 2014, 447t of ingredients were sold, which is a total decrease of 52%.

There has been a conscious effort in recent years to reduce antibitoic use due to the rise of antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

AMR happens when microorganisms that cause infection change, and no longer respond to medicines, making infections harder to treat. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises AMR as one of the greatest threats to human and animal health in the world today.

Chief executive of the veterinary medicines directorate, Abigail Seager, said: “I’m delighted with the continued progress in so many areas of this year’s UK-VARSS report.

“The overall decreasing trends in antimicrobial usage and resistance levels in livestock, shows the UK has continued in its mission to build on the antibiotic stewardship principles we have implemented in the past seven years.

“Our evolving surveillance programmes are essential to alert us to any emerging risks or unexpected changes.

“The UK’s collaborative and voluntary approach to reducing antimicrobial usage in farming is one we are very proud of,” she said.

The UK’s chief veterinary officer (CVO), Christine Middlemiss, said that antimicrobials are the cornerstones to treating infections in both humans and animals, and using them responsibly is essential in safeguarding their effectiveness.

“The UK, as a whole, is making sustained progress in reducing the unnecessary use of antibiotics through effective disease control measures, good farming practices and robust AMR surveillance,” she said.

“Tackling AMR requires a One Health approach and this record reduction shows how alongside vets, farmers and industry, we are demonstrating this year after year.”

Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA) chair, Cat McLaughlin, said: “The RUMA Targets Task Force report presents a consolidated view of the targets and indicators of progress across the livestock industry.

“We are two years into the RUMA 2021-2024 targets and many sectors are reporting positive progress, with all sectors continuing to strive to keep antibiotics effective and fit for purpose, and only using them when necessary.

“I continue to be impressed by the commitment of farmers, vets and everyone in the food supply chain, and am full of praise for the work of UK agriculture in its efforts to tackle AMR,” she said.

Use of vaccines in cattle

Although sales of antibiotics for livestock decreased, data from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) has shown that vaccine sales for cattle have risen.

The total number of doses of cattle vaccines sold increased by 20.3% between 2011 and 2021.

AHDB has attributed the fluctuations in vaccine sales to changes in the dose regimes along with manufacturing and supply issues.

It said that sales from wholesalers do not necessarily equate to use in that year. However, it is still useful in estimating the likely level of protection in the target group.

The biggest increase in vaccine uptake between 2011 and 2021 was for calf enteritis (40%) and pneumonia (50%).

The estimated proportion of cattle vaccinated for Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) has fluctuated in a relatively narrow range between 42% and 48% from 2011 to 2021.

The proportion of breeding cattle vaccinated for Leptospirosis has generally been around 33% over the same time period although there was a reduction in 2021 when there were supply chain issues.