Antibiotic Use in Livestock Production

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Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections in humans and livestock. Their unnecessary use and over-prescribing can increase the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. You may have found that your doctor is reluctant to prescribe antibiotics unless a bacterial confection is confirmed. Vets are increasingly taking the same approach to ensure that we have as wide a range of effective antibiotics available to treat livestock.

Antibiotic Use in Livestock Production

Antibiotics are part of the family of antimicrobials. If no action is taken to limit Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR), this will impact global health, food sustainability and security, environmental wellbeing, and socio-economic development.

What’s the problem?

Already, AMR infections (i.e. bacterial diseases which are now resistant to antibiotics) are estimated to cause 700,000 human deaths each year globally. That figure is predicted to rise to 10 million, alongside a cumulative cost of $100 trillion by 2050, if no action is taken.  AMR also threatens many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The World Bank estimates that an extra 28 million people will be forced into extreme poverty by 2050 unless AMR is contained.

In the UK, rising AMR will cause people to suffer from infectious illnesses for longer periods as they become more difficult to treat.  The number of human deaths and suffering attributable to infectious disease will increase as will the healthcare costs associated with treating ill health in humans. Find out more here.

What does this have to do with the food we eat?

Livestock producers have a responsibility to protect human and animal health by using antibiotics correctly in order to minimise the risk of AMR. Therefore the UK government is aiming for a 25% reduction on 2016 antibiotics sales for livestock by 2020.

There has been significant progress in improving infection prevention and control (IPC) in animals. Responsible use of antibiotics helps to maintain the effectiveness of antimicrobials and control costs on farm, alongside careful management of health and welfare through the use of vaccines and maintaining good levels of hygiene.

In October 2017, voluntary targets for reducing antibiotic use in animals were agreed for eight key livestock sectors by the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA). RUMA includes representatives from the agricultural industry, veterinary organisations, RSPCA and retailers, to name a few.

The top-line targets for the key livestock sectors are detailed below:

Sector Target
Beef 10% reduction between 2016 and 2020
Dairy 20% reduction in total usage of microbials by 2020
Eggs Total bird/days medicated remains below 1%
Fish Overall antibacterial usage in UK finfish aquaculture to be maintained at a maximum of 5mg/kg for salmon and at an average of 20mg/kg for trout
Game Birds 25% reduction in the tonnage of antibiotic active used in 2017, as compared with 2016
Pigs 62% reduction in usage by 2020 from 2015 baseline level
Poultry meat Ducks and broiler chicken are already well below the UK Government’s average target for 2018 of 50mg/PCU* and the turkey sector has made significant progress in the last three years in reducing the mg/PCU across that sector.
Sheep 10% reduction in total usage by 2020

*PCU is the Population Correction Unit. This is a theoretical unit of measurement recognised across Europe. For example a 50 mg/PCU figure for food producing animals would mean that on average, and over the course of a year, 50 mg of antibiotic active ingredient was used for every kg of bodyweight at time of treatment.

Antimicrobial use in the beef and sheep sectors

In the beef and sheep sectors antimicrobials are mainly used for the following health treatments:

  • Treatment of calf health problems
  • Treatment of pneumonia
  • To reduce watery mouth and joint ill in young lambs
  • To avoid abortion, where vaccination is not used and in the event of an abortion storm
  • To treat sheep with footrot or contagious digital dermatitis


Beef and sheep producers are advised to review and implement biosecurity strategies to prevent disease issues that require antibiotic use. This involves discussing antibiotic use with the farm vet and ensuring the herd/flock health plan is fit-for-purpose and implemented. 

Strict biosecurity, vaccination and careful livestock management are important ways to avoid bacterial infections in livestock therefore reducing the need for antibiotic use.

Global Approach to AMR

There is a global consensus that AMR poses a major threat to human and animal health. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has developed a global action plan on antimicrobial resistance.

The goal:

To ensure, for as long as possible, continuity of successful treatment and prevention of infectious diseases with effective and safe medicines that are quality-assured, used in a responsible way and accessible to all who need them.

Objectives at national level:

  1. Improve awareness and understanding of antimicrobial resistance;
  2. Strengthen knowledge through surveillance and research;
  3. Reduce the incidence of infection;
  4. Optimise the use of antimicrobial agents;
  5. Ensure sustainable investment in countering antimicrobial resistance.


What about the rest of the Food Supply Chain?

In addition to the management of antimicrobial use in animal and human health, food hygiene standards must be maintained to reduce the incidence of food poisoning outbreaks. Good hygiene is a cross-cutting theme running through the health, animal, food and environmental sectors.

In the UK, the Food Standard Agency (FSA) and Food Standards Scotland (FSS) lead efforts to improve food hygiene among consumers, which are largely driven by a need to avoid food poisoning from pathogens like Salmonella and E. coli. Both of these pathogens can have a significant impact on human health and require treatment with antibiotics. Minimising exposure to these pathogens while also ensuring that there are effective antibiotics available to treat them is vital.

Find out more

To find out more, please contact Agricultural Consultant, Emma Jones or visit our Animal Health service page.

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