Labelling products as “Antibiotic-free” has the potential to mislead the consumer by implying that meat or milk not marketed as such contains antibiotics, the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA) has warned.

RUMA was established in November 1997 to promote the highest standards of food safety, animal health and animal welfare in the British livestock industry.

It warns that such labels create a perception that antibiotics are commonplace in food which is not labelled - which it says is not the case, as there are strict rules governing the administration of antibiotics to farm animals in the UK.

Recent moves to label produce “Antibiotic-free”, “Reared Without Antibiotics”, “No Antibiotics Ever” or similar have prompted the body to bolster its position that it does not support the marketing of any meat or milk on the basis of such claims.

A spokesman explained that while RUMA welcomes efforts to minimise antibiotic use through improved health and welfare, it does not support the use of these claims for marketing, for the following reasons:

  • These rules are enforced by Government surveillance to guarantee that in meat or milk sold for consumption, antibiotics are not present above a harmless trace level set as a maximum residue limit.
  • If claims of “Antibiotic-Free”, “Reared Without Antibiotics”, “No Antibiotics Ever” or similar mean the animals from which the milk or meat is derived have not been given antibiotics in their lifetime, this presents the risk of driving unintended consequences.

"The main concern is causing unnecessary suffering and associated welfare issues by withholding treatment from sick animals in order to comply with the label, when in fact the animals should be treated," a spokesman added.

"Equally, if sick animals are taken out of that supply chain and appropriately treated, then the wider system of production does still include antibiotic use, which may not be clear to consumers.

"Lastly, RUMA would like to clarify that while the terms “Antibiotic-Free”, “Reared Without Antibiotics”, “No Antibiotics Ever” or similar may be used to differentiate produce in some countries where use of antibiotics for growth promotion is still permitted, it is not relevant nor helpful in the EU where this practice has been banned since 2006."

He added: "RUMA is committed to ensuring antibiotics are used in animal production only when necessary, and when used that the right antibiotics are given in the most effective way possible to cure animal disease while minimising the risk of antibiotic resistance developing."