Antibiotic overuse on UK factory farms caused almost 2,000 human deaths last year, according to a new report by World Animal Protection UK.
Titled ‘Is factory farming killing us?’, the report looked at the effects of intensive animal farming on human health and the economy. It revealed that bacteria linked to antibiotic use in factory farms are predicted to cause more than 52,000 deaths between now and 2050 unless action is taken.
Lindsay Duncan, World Animal Protection UK Farming Campaigns Manager, told Plant Based News: “We hope this report highlights to the UK government the importance of matching the EU regulations banning the routine and preventative use of antibiotics on farms.”
What are antibiotics?
Antibiotics are a class of drugs that are used to treat bacterial infections.
Three quarters of the world’s antibiotics are currently used on farmed animals. Most are not given to animals to treat specific illnesses. Instead, they are often routinely used to prevent illness and infections resulting from the conditions in which the animals are kept.
Such overuse of antibiotics is responsible for antimicrobial resistance (AMR). AMR is a threat to human health because it could make some common diseases untreatable.
Humans killed by factory farming
The intensive way in which animals are farmed puts a huge stress on their immune systems. In the UK, 85 percent of farmed animals live on factory farms.
Excessive use of antibiotics causes drug-resistant bacteria to emerge. In turn, these bacteria contaminate the environment. Last year, World Animal Protection released a report that highlighted the contamination of UK rivers by antibiotic overuse.
As a result, some human illnesses are becoming untreatable. Experts have called AMR “one of the biggest threats to global health” the world currently faces. The report outlines that more than 2,400 people a year could die from antibiotic overuse on factory farms by 2050.
Dr Ron Daniels of the UK Sepsis Trust said: “In the UK, the recent reduction by the farming industry of antibiotic use doesn’t go far enough. We must end the routine preventative use of antibiotics to reduce the human health and economic burden of AMR. To do this we have to raise animal welfare.”
Animals suffer on factory farms
Animals remain the biggest victims of factory farms. Investigations, including one last year by World Animal Protection, have revealed countless cases of mistreatment. This includes piglets with cut tails, mother pigs in metal cages, and chickens struggling to breathe.
However, meat production does not only harm animals. The report revealed that UK farmers have reduced antibiotic usage per kilo of animal in recent years. However, the number of animals raised for meat is rising. As such, by 2050 the amount of antibiotics used will increase by 6.9 percent.
Loopholes in the law
Earlier this year, the UK government published draft legislation to stop farmers routinely giving animals antibiotics as a preventative measure. However, campaigners say that the ban does not go far enough and that loopholes remain.
“The prophylactic use of antibiotics often overlaps with the routine use of antibiotics on farms and banning one without the other will most likely result in unforeseen loopholes that would allow for business as usual,” World Animal Protection states in its petition.
Duncan told PBN: “Despite promises to bring in like-for-like regulations [with the EU] and a consultation earlier this year, the UK has yet to implement further restrictions that would ensure responsible antibiotic use.”
Economic impacts complete the picture
The report also revealed losses to the UK economy from antibiotics overuse on factory farms totalled £1.32 billion in 2022.
In total, the UK lost nearly 40,000 work years (DALYs) in 2022 due to E. coli and non-typhoidal Salmonella. These bacteria are linked to antibiotic use in factory farms.
The researchers estimate that productive years lost due to illnesses and deaths will be over 1 million by 2050. This will cost the economy £37.55 billion.
Public “shocked” about impacts of antibiotic overuse
According to the report, three in five people in the UK feel “shocked” that humans might suffer due to the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms.
Moreover, seven in ten people say they support a ban on routine and preventative use of antibiotics on farmed animals.
Duncan added: “70 percent of people in the UK support a ban and we hope that the public signing our open letter calling for a full ban on the routine preventative use of antibiotics will influence the government to bring in these regulations and implement them quickly.”