There is a real transformative opportunity here; one that could see the current dependency on antibiotics replaced with a more resilient, higher-welfare farming model which safeguards human and animal health.
Antibiotic overuse in livestock farming has made the headlines in recent months.
In early September a study - commissioned by the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics and conducted by the University of Cambridge - found E.coli bugs resistant to multiple crucial antibiotics on UK-origin pig and chicken meat from seven major supermarkets.
Shortly afterwards, further testing of the meat revealed MRSA on pork from two major retailers. Following these revelations, the national media warned of a 'post-antibiotic era'.
The UK farming industry also responded promptly, pointing to recent reductions in antibiotic use in poultry and to new policies they are introducing aiming at cutting use across the board.
Even the Food Standards Agency - in an unprecedented move - committed to work with UK supermarkets to reduce antibiotic use in their supply chains.
Supermarkets reluctant to talk publicly about farm antibiotic use
In contrast, most UK supermarkets kept their heads well below the parapet. This was not entirely surprising. While some - such as Sainsbury's and Waitrose - do have antibiotic-use policies in place, routine preventative mass-medication of groups of animals is still permitted by law, and by most supermarkets.
So why the silence? Such practices are widely disapproved of by the UK Government, the European Parliament and the general public, and are even banned in some European countries. So maybe supermarkets are simply reluctant to draw attention to profligate antibiotic use within their supply chains.
But as the antimicrobial resistance crisis reaches terrifying proportions, and the positive association between veterinary prescribing and human resistance becomes more and more apparent, it is becoming increasingly tricky for supermarkets to avoid scrutiny.
On Tuesday 11th October, Zac Goldsmith MP tabled an Early Day Motion (number 488) on farm antibiotics with the support of five sponsors: former Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman (Con), former Shadow Defra Secretary Kerry McCarthy (Lab), David Warburton (Con), Margaret Ritchie (SDLP), and Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas.
Unusually the EDM is demanding action not from the government, but from supermarkets, calling on them to take action on antibiotics by:
- adopting publicly available policies on veterinary antibiotic use within their supply chains;
- prohibiting routine mass-medication of livestock;
- and committing to drastic reductions to farm use of the 'critically important' antibiotics.
In a welcome show of cross-party consensus, these MPs are sending a very clear message: supermarkets must now show leadership on this issue, and use their vast buying power to protect public health.
Supermarkets must publicly embrace the scale of the challenge
The Early Day Motion is expected to gather a significant number of MP signatories, but will this prove enough to coax supermarkets into a more vocal and active position on antibiotics?
Certainly, their domination of the grocery market places these actors as central stakeholders within the antimicrobial resistance issue. They bear a responsibility they will find increasingly hard to shrug off as antibiotic-resistant bugs are discovered in the national food supply chain.
But this inevitability is countered by supermarkets' strong aversion to any scrutiny whatsoever around antibiotic use in their supply chains. Supermarkets, like many large companies, tend to avoid speaking out until they can point to themselves as exemplary - and most are not.
They are understandably reluctant to alert their customers to unacceptable practices in their supply-chains. Yet fear of scrutiny must not prevent these stakeholders from throwing their hat into the ring and helping to frame the narrative around responsible antibiotic use.
The first step must be for food retailers to speak out: to publicly accept the scale of the challenge, to acknowledge the gap between current practice and future goals, and to outline a roadmap to progress.
Making the required reductions to antibiotic use, phasing out routine prophylaxis and curbing use of the antibiotics classified as critically important in human medicine will be a huge supply-chain challenge. It will require a consultative, collaborative approach with farmers and supply-chain actors.
Supermarkets should use this challenge to invite their customers in, using open and honest rhetoric about the barriers to progress, and how these will be overcome.
Better farming - a key tool to reducing the need for antibiotics
Finally, supermarkets must commit to supporting livestock systems where animals are kept healthy through good welfare, not routine medication. This will necessitate a fundamental shift in how we define productivity and acceptable levels of animal welfare.
For too long industrial agriculture has hidden behind a façade of economic efficiency, where important antibiotics are used as a management tool, and the human-health implications are externalised and ignored. Supermarkets have played their part in the creation of this system, often paying farmers low prices - leading to continuous efforts by farmers to cut costs while still increasing productivity.
This in turn, leads to conditions where livestock are pushed to their natural limits and are more prone to disease, requiring routine antibiotics just to stay disease-free. Now, as we face the loss of modern medicine, large retailers must pay a fair price for meat and dairy products, to allow farmers to make the changes that we need to see.
There is a real transformative opportunity here; one that could see the current dependency on antibiotics replaced with a more resilient, higher-welfare farming model which safeguards human and animal health. The Alliance is ready to welcome any positive shift by these stakeholders. We accept that progress will look different for each retailer, and that some will face more practical difficulties than others.
Regardless of the scale of this challenge, it is no longer acceptable for supermarkets to stay silent.
Action: Ask your local MP to sign the Early Day Motion on farm antibiotics.
Emma Rose leads the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics - an EU-wide coalition of health, medical, environmental and animal welfare groups campaigning to stop the overuse of antibiotics in livestock farming.
Full text of EDM 488: "That this House expresses concern about recent findings of high levels of antibiotic-resistant e.coli and MRSA on British supermarket meat, of UK origin; welcomes the commitment of the Foods Standards Agency to work with UK food retailers to reduce farm antibiotic use and Waitrose's recently updated policy, which prohibits antibiotic prophylaxis, routine preventative use; notes that the systematic overuse of antibiotics in farm animals is contributing to the emergence of antibiotic resistance in human bacterial infections; considers the routine preventative mass-medication of animals to be unacceptable practice; believes that the adoption of higher welfare farming practices must be central to any successful strategy to reduce farm antibiotic use; and calls on all UK supermarkets to adopt a publicly available policy on antibiotic use within their supply chains, prohibiting routine mass-medication of livestock and committing to drastic reductions in farm use of the critically important antibiotics."
The Alliance was founded by Compassion in World Farming, the Soil Association and Sustain in 2009, and is supported by the Jeremy Coller Foundation. Its vision is a world in which human and animal health and wellbeing are protected by food and farming systems that do not rely routinely on antibiotics and related drugs.