Marks & Spencer has become the first supermarket chain in the UK to publish details of the use of antibiotics in its farm supply chain, in a step towards reducing the use of vital human medicines in livestock-rearing.
On Wednesday, the company disclosed on its web site information on the quantities of antibiotics used on livestock by the farmers that supply its meat, eggs and dairy products. This will be updated regularly to show progress towards cutting the use of the drugs, which are also prescribed to treat human diseases.
The data show that the supermarket chain is ahead of industry-wide targets, particularly on chicken farms, on which antibiotic use for the last year has been about 90% below the target for 2020 set by the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance.
The move by M&S follows a report in the Guardian revealing that none of the UK’s main supermarket chains allowed the public access to information on the use of antibiotics in their supply chains. An investigation by the Guardian found that the superbug MRSA is now present in close to a tenth of pork products found on UK supermarket shelves.
Antibiotic use in farming is of high concern, because it can lead to the development of bacteria that are resistant to vitally important medicines. This resistance can be passed to humans. Antibiotic resistance has been targeted by England’s chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, as a key threat to our future wellbeing, amid fears that even routine operations such as hip replacements may become dangerous as the medicines to combat possible infections become ineffective through over-use.
M&S is the only supermarket so far to publish such data. Waitrose has collated similar data for its farm supply chain, but a spokeswoman told the Guardian it was awaiting third-party approval before publishing the details, probably in the new year.
Across the world, the routine administration of antibiotics is used to promote the growth of livestock reared for meat. In Europe, such use is banned, but the regulations allow for the treatment of large herds or flocks at a time, which campaigners say is a cause for concern. More antibiotics are used in farming than for human health.
The World Health Organisation has called for the use of the most powerful antibiotics to be banned in farm animals, in order to keep them safe for human use. However, this advice does not have legal force and countries, including the UK, are free to keep using them on animals. A ban would be unpopular among farmers as it could mean they have to cull their herds in cases of infection rather than treat them.
Steve McLean, head of agriculture at M&S, told the Guardian: “Our farmers use antibiotics responsibly. They never use them routinely, never use antibiotics that are critical to human health, and are committed to reducing use every year. However, we do not envisage never using them. Animal welfare is at the heart of our business, and using them responsibly includes ensuring animals receive the appropriate treatment, under veterinary supervision, when they need it.”
Coilin Nunan, scientific advisor to the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, said: “We very much welcome M&S’s decision to publish data on its suppliers’ antibiotic use. We want to see all supermarkets increase transparency for consumers by publishing similar data, but so far Waitrose is the only other supermarket that has agreed to do so.”
He said the data published by M&S showed its suppliers were using far fewer antibiotics than most other producers, particularly in pig and chicken production. In these areas, M&S suppliers use less than a quarter of the industry average.
Nunan also called for the supermarket chain to publish more detailed data, showing how free-range and organic farms fared against indoor farming and intensive rearing.
He added: “It would also be important to get data on antibiotic use in turkeys, because such use is often much higher than in chickens, but this tends to get overlooked.”