City investors issue antibiotics warning to high street pub and restaurant chains
A group of powerful City investors who together control more than £700 billion have written to leading fast food, pub and restaurant chains urging them to take immediate action to reduce antibiotic use in their meat and poultry supply chains.
The financiers, including Aviva Investors, Strathclyde Pension Fund and Coller Capital, are particularly concerned about the use of antibiotics classified as “critically important” to human health and the “routine, preventative” use of drugs on factory farms.
Experts believe their use on farm animals is linked via the food chain to the spread of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.
The investors are worried that growing consumer awareness of the issues could damage the companies’ reputations and so hit their own bottom lines.
Some of the companies contacted, such as McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza – both US owned – say they have already begun to develop policies for tackling antibiotic use on farms.
Others that were sent letters included pub giants JD Wetherspoon, and the company behind the Harvester, All Bar One and Toby Carvery chains, Mitchells & Butlers – both UK owned – and Burger King.
The unprecedented move follows warnings from the World Health Organization (WHO) that antibiotic use in livestock production is contributing to the global threat of a “post-antibiotic era”.
Jeremy Coller, the founder of Coller Capital, said: “These large food companies are key ingredients in the portfolios of most of our pensions and savings – thus it is a case of proper risk management to ask them to work out how they will meet this challenge.”
“The world is changing, regulation on antibiotic use is set to tighten and consumer preferences are shifting away from factory farmed food. As stewards of these food companies and responsible investors, we want to protect both human health and shareholder value.”
Abigail Herron, of Aviva Investors, one of the letters’ signatories, added: “Antibiotics are precious commodities and should be spent wisely.”
The shareholder action comes as new research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reveals an increase in veterinary sales of “critically important” antibiotics in recent years, despite the potential health risks.
Other new figures obtained by the Bureau also suggest there has been an increase in cases of a drug resistant strain of campylobacter, Britain’s most widespread foodborne illness. Campaigners argue this is a medical consequence of continued inaction on the issue.
The Bureau launched an investigation late last year into the use of antibiotics on farmyard animals, with experts claiming there are serious consequences for human health.
The investors’ letter, sent last month, was prompted by worries that increasing scrutiny of food production is leading to potentially damaging consumer campaigns which could trigger costly regulation.
However, in their letters, they add: “On the other hand, there will be cost savings and reduced disruption for forward looking companies who have established relationships with higher welfare producers.”
In a report due tomorrow, the groups say that although perceptions are shifting and the financial risk associated with the over-use of antibiotics is gaining profile, “what remains clear is that a majority of companies operating in the restaurant and fast food sectors currently depend – to varying degrees – on the prophylactic use of antibiotics within their global meat and poultry supply chains”.
In response to the letter, JD Wetherspoon told the Bureau: “The use of artificial growth promoting substances, including antibiotics, is prohibited across all our livestock supply chains.”
Mitchells & Butlers said: “The prophylactic use of antibiotics in livestock production is an important issue to Mitchells & Butlers and one that we are reviewing across all species, as part of our Sourcing Policy. We have been working with our poultry suppliers to define our Antibiotic Policy and we are continuing to develop this policy, species by species.”
A spokeswoman for McDonald’s said it announced last year that in its North American operations, it would “only source chickens raised without antibiotics important to human medicine”. For Europe, she added: “Since 2001…we have been monitoring, controlling and reducing the use of antibiotics among chickens in our supply chain.
“In fact, we have a policy which bans the use of the highest priority critically important antibiotics for human medicine (as designated by WHO) in our chicken supply chain by 2018.”
Burger King said in a statement: “We are currently in the process of developing the Sustainability and Responsibility framework for Restaurant Brands International for release in 2016. Our products currently comply with all regulations regarding the use of antibiotics.”
A Domino’s Pizza spokeswoman said: “[Our] suppliers use antibiotics only when necessary to treat diseases. This is done under strict veterinary supervision. Antibiotics are not used to prevent disease or as a growth promoter.”
Meanwhile, a Bureau analysis of veterinary data has found a rise in sales for farm usage of four classes of “critically important” antibiotics between 2008 and 2014, the latest year for which figures are available.
Macrolides, third and fourth generation cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones and aminoglycosides have all seen an increase – despite warnings their use in livestock production should be curtailed.
The WHO classes these antibiotics as “critically important” because they are among the few options doctors have to treat serious infectious diseases in humans.
Sales data for antibiotics in the UK is recorded in a measurement called milligrams per Population Correction Unit, which takes into account the average weight of an animal when it’s treated with the drug and adjusts for the size of each livestock population to allow analysis over the years.
Fluoroquinolones are one of few available treatments for serious food poisoning infections – including Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli – in humans. Veterinary sales increased from 0.27 to 0.34 mg/PCU between 2008 and 2014.
Third and fourth generation cephalosporins are two of a limited number of treatments for Salmonella and E. coli infections in children. Veterinary sales increased from 0.13 to 0.230 mg/PCU between 2008 and 2014.
Increasing trend in veterinary sales of critically important antibiotics
The overuse of “critically important” antibiotics in farm animals is said to be fuelling the spread of drug resistant strains of some infections from animals to humans. People who eat contaminated chicken, for example, risk catching a food poisoning bug that is resistant to the antibiotics used to treat serious cases.
Sales data for antibiotics is recorded using a measurement called milligrams per Population Correction Unit, which takes into account the average weight of an animal when it’s treated with the drug and adjusts for the size of each livestock population to allow analysis over the years.
There is particular concern about fluoroquinolones. The drugs are banned on chicken farms in the US, as well as in Australia, Finland and Denmark, because of the risks of spreading antibiotic resistant strains of food poisoning bugs.
New figures obtained by the Bureau under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed the number of UK human campylobacter infections found to be resistant to one particular fluoroquinolone reached its highest level for a decade last year.
The Public Health England data concerned the tests on the fluoroquinolone ciprofloxacin. Of the human campylobacter cases tested for resistance to the drug in 2015, 48% of the results showed immunity. The comparable resistance rate for 2005 was 30%.
Campaigners say the findings underscore the need for urgent action. Cóilín Nunan, of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, said: “For a long time scientists have been saying that much of this resistance is coming from the use of fluoroquinolones in poultry. This is why we have been calling for a ban on the use of fluoroquinolones in poultry for nearly 20 years.”
Public Health England said the findings reinforced the need for “judicious” use of antibiotics in both human and veterinary medicine.
But the body cautioned: “Most cases of campylobacter food poisoning are self-limiting and require no treatment, however antibiotics may be considered in severe cases.
“The prospect of reduced treatment options related to antibiotic resistance therefore poses a well-defined public health concern.”
It said that other antibiotics frequently used to treat campylobacter had much lower resistance levels.
Professor Erik Millstone, a food safety expert from the University of Sussex, told the Bureau: “I find it very worrying that instances of resistant campylobacter are rising. What’s more worrying is evidence that the Government is failing to respond adequately or effectively.”
Dr Ron Dixon, microbiologist at the University of Lincoln, said that any rise in resistance to ciprofloxacin in human campylobacter cases was “extremely worrying”.
“The results emphasise the importance of reducing the routine use of antibiotics in the poultry and meat supply chains”, he said.
However, he added that it was “unlikely” that one in two people with campylobacter would have a resistant strain – because only about a third of campylobacter cases in humans are tested for resistance to ciprofloxacin,. “The real resistance figure could be much lower”, he said.
Campylobacter is the UK’s most widespread food poisoning illness, infecting around 280,000 people each year, and killing more than 100. Four out of five cases are thought to result from contaminated poultry meat.
Although recent tests of supermarket chicken indicated a fall in contamination rates, the spread of drug resistant strains represents a new worry for health chiefs.
The Bureau’s findings follow the publication in February of European research which highlighted how more than 60% of human campylobacter cases tested across Europe were now ciprofloxacin resistant.
The report, published by the European Food Safety Authority and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, warned that the situation was “reducing the options for effective treatment of severe foodborne infections [such as campylobacter]”.
In February a Bureau investigation uncovered – for the first time – the volumes of fluoroquinolones being administered by UK poultry producers. Unpublished figures from the British Poultry Council (BPC) revealed its members used 1.126 tonnes of the drugs in 2014 and 0.71 tonnes the previous year.
The disclosure was particularly significant because antibiotic use on farms is surrounded by a lack of transparency and little centralised record keeping, say critics.
Many farmers and meat processing companies are reluctant to disclose livestock drug regimes, and although the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) – the regulatory body tasked with policing the livestock sector – publishes annual sales data for veterinary antibiotics, it does not collate details of actual usage, meaning officials have little idea of what’s happening on specific farms.
The livestock sector using the most antibiotics – the pig industry, which accounts for around 60% of veterinary antibiotic sales – admits that it has not, until recently, collected any usage data at all from farms. A new “medicines hub” to record antibiotic usage by individual pig farmers is currently being piloted it says, but its launch is understood to have been delayed.
The BPC, which represents around 90% of the industry, says it has been collecting detailed information from producers since 2011, and shared its data with the VMD for the first time in 2014. But despite sharing this detailed usage data with the VMD, the VMD only published total antibiotic usage for the poultry sector and not the breakdown.
This week the BPC published its data on antibiotic usage for its members for the first time.
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