MEPs have backed plans to stop the spread of drug resistance from animals to humans by curbing the use of antibiotics on farms, keeping drug-resistant bacteria out of food. Veterinary medicines must not under any circumstances serve to improve the performance or compensate for poor animal husbandry, says the new law. It would limit the use of antimicrobials as a preventive measure, in the absence of clinical signs of infection (known as prophylactic use) to single animals and not groups. The drugs can be used only when fully justified by a veterinarian in cases where there is a high risk of infection.
Metaphylactic use (i.e., treating a group of animals when one shows signs of infection) should be a last resort and only occur once a veterinarian has diagnosed infection and prescribed the antimicrobials.
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) threatens the effective prevention and treatment of an ever-increasing range of infections caused by bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi. AMR is an increasingly serious threat to global public health that requires action across all government sectors and society, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
To help tackle antimicrobial resistance, the law would empower the European Commission to select antimicrobials to be reserved only for treating humans.
As advocated by MEPs, the text also imposes that imported foodstuffs will have to meet EU standards and that antibiotics cannot be used to enhance the growth of animals.
The agreement with EU ministers was adopted with 583 votes to 16 and 20 abstentions.
It comes after the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) recently warned that bacteria in humans, food and animals continue to show resistance to the most widely-used antimicrobials.
Scientists say that resistance to ciprofloxacin, an antimicrobial that is critically important for treating human infections, is very high in Campylobacter, thus reducing the options for effective treatment of severe foodborne infections. Multi-drug resistant Salmonella bacteria continue to spread across Europe.
In a separate vote, MEPs also approved, by 583 votes in favor to 31 against and six abstentions, new rules on more responsible ways to produce, sell and use medicated feed to tackle the spread of antimicrobial resistance.
“This is a major step forward for public health. Beyond farmers or animal owners, the use of veterinary medicines concerns us all, because it has a direct impact on our environment and our food; in short, on our health,” says Françoise Grossetête (EPP, FR), rapporteur.
“Thanks to this law, we will be able to reduce the consumption of antibiotics on livestock farms, an important source of resistance that is then transmitted to humans. Antibiotic resistance is a real sword of Damocles, threatening to send our health care system back to the Middle Ages.”
The agreement still has to be formally adopted by Council before publication in the Official Journal.
The European Consumer Organization (BEUC) welcomes that under the new rules, the routine preventive use of antimicrobials will in principle be prohibited. The updated legislation also imposes new obligations on member states for the collection of data on both the sales and the use of antimicrobials per animal species. However, those are only to be phased-in very gradually.
Third country producers exporting animal products to the EU will have to respect the ban on antimicrobial use for growth promotion and the new restrictions on those antimicrobials which are vital in human medicine.
It is expected that the new law will enter into force in early 2019.
“This new EU law is a significant answer to a looming health crisis. As the World Health Organization itself noted, antimicrobial resistance is one of today’s biggest global health threats,” says BEUC Director-General, Monique Goyens.
“EU consumer groups have long been advocating for an end to the routine preventive use of antibiotics in farm animals. Vital antibiotics should be reserved for treating infections in people. Both will become a reality now and this is very good news.”
“It is only fair that our trading partners should follow the same rules as EU farmers when they export their meat to Europe. Meat imported to the EU should not be derived from animals which are fed antibiotics to stimulate their growth – and the industry’s profits.”
BEUC also welcomed that all Member States will be required to collect data not just on the sales, but also on the actual use of antimicrobials per animal species, but says that it’s disappointing these obligations will not apply for several years.
“As the latest data published by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) shows, action to cut antibiotic use in food-producing animals has been uneven across EU Member States. Good data allowing country comparison is key to identifying best practices and ensuring all Member States step up their game to end the improper use of antibiotics in farming,” adds Goyens.
The latest European Surveillance of Veterinary Antimicrobial Consumption (ESVAC) report found that, overall, sales of veterinary antimicrobials across Europe have decreased by more than 20 percent between 2011 and 2016. Yet, while sales of veterinary antimicrobials dropped in 16 of those 25 countries that provided data for 2011-2016, six countries recorded sales increases during the same period.