The Soil Association has said the new Veterinary Medicines Regulations contain “loopholes and weaknesses” which may allow the “overuse of antibiotics on farms to continue”.

The new legislation, which came into force on Friday (May 17), bans the routine use of antibiotics on farm animals and their use “to compensate for poor hygiene, inadequate animal husbandry, or poor farm management practices”.

Prophylactic use is also being restricted to “exceptional circumstances”.

The Soil Association and the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics said these are major improvements in the regulation of British farm antibiotic use, but that the rules are ‘”far weaker” than EU rules.

Cóilín Nunan of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics said: “Some of the new rules on farm antibiotic use are welcome and long overdue.

“Unfortunately, the government has deliberately weakened the legislation, in comparison to the EU’s, and this will allow some poorly run farms to keep on feeding large groups of animals antibiotics, even when no disease is present.

“We are also concerned the ban on using antibiotics to compensate for inadequate animal husbandry and poor farm management practices may not be properly implemented.”

In response to the new legislation, the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics is calling on the government to:

  • Ban group prophylaxis with antibiotics;
  • Introduce mandatory antibiotic-use data collection;
  • Set new, more ambitious targets for reducing farm antibiotic use;
  • Major improvements to minimum husbandry standards.

Prophylactic use

Unlike the EU, the Westminster government has refused to ban the practice of feeding prophylactic or preventative antibiotics to groups of animals where no animals have been diagnosed as sick, the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics said.

The Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) has said that group prophylactic treatments should be allowed because some farms would need to make “improvements to farm infrastructure and management practices” to reduce or eliminate disease, and this can take time.

This suggests that in practice the VMD will allow some farmers to continue using antibiotics to compensate for poor farm management practices, despite the legislation explicitly banning such use, the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics said.

The new regulations say that prophylactic treatments will only be permitted “in exceptional circumstances where the risk of an infection or of an infectious disease is very high and where the consequences of not prescribing the product are likely to be severe”.

The alliance said this is a welcome restriction, based on an equivalent EU law.

However, when asked to clarify what is meant by “exceptional” use, farming minister Mark Spencer said prophylactic use “would be permitted only where there would be a risk of infection or severe consequences if antibiotics were not applied” .

The alliance said this suggests that prophylactic use could still occur quite frequently, since when animals are kept in highly intensive conditions, there is often a significant risk of infection.

“If the risk of disease occurring in intensive farming is viewed as being an exceptional circumstance, then prophylactic antibiotic use could effectively continue as before,” it said.