Reducing antibiotic use in pig production – is there a need for systemic change?
The responsible use of antibiotics in pig production is critical to protecting animal and human health and to upholding the reputation of the pig sector.
The UK pig sector has set itself an ambitious target to reduce the use of antibiotics in pigs by 62% over five years to 2020. While the progress to date has been extremely impressive, demonstrated by a reduction in antibiotic use of more than 50% in two years, it could be argued that the low-hanging fruit has been harvested and further reductions are likely to be challenging.
The purpose of my Nuffield study was to identify how these reductions might be achieved, with a focus on disease control measures as well as methods to engage farmers with antibiotic stewardship. I met with pig farmers, veterinarians, industry organisations and government representatives in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the United States, Canada, Australia and in the UK in search of best practice and initiatives aimed at reducing antibiotic use in pigs.
It became clear that in order to reduce antibiotic use, it is important to establish a foundation of good pig health. Easy access to disease-masking antibiotics and a lack of coordination and focus in the UK pig industry regarding control of endemic disease has resulted in a decline in the health status of the national pig herd.
Therefore, my report recommends the development of a national pig health improvement scheme that makes better use of surveillance data, diagnostics and that operates with transparency at its heart. Importantly, the scheme needs to be sufficiently well-resourced to ensure it can operate long-term and across the entire industry.
The hygiene and farm management practices that contribute to effective prevention of disease are well-established but not well-implemented on UK pig farms, probably due to challenging market conditions and underinvestment in farm infrastructure. Pig farmers should be encouraged to review farm practices, invest in applying those that aid disease control and endeavour to implement them consistently and to a high standard.
In order to engage farmers with improving pig health and using antibiotics more responsibly, industry organisations should develop participatory farmer-led initiatives that recognise and utilise the existing expertise of farmers. This approach is far more likely to deliver action on farms than traditional top-down style knowledge transfer.
It must also be recognised that behavioural change is hard and does not happen overnight. However there are techniques that can facilitate change and these should be incorporated into any activity aimed at improving antibiotic use in pig production.
Finally, the aim should not be to achieve zero use of antibiotics in pig production, nor simply reduce the use of antibiotics. The focus should be on reducing the need for antibiotics.
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