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Resistance and Responsibility: Antibiotic Use in Supermarket Supply Chains

News Section Icon Published 11/18/2021

Meat, dairy and eggs produced with the misuse of antibiotics could still be making its way on to UK supermarket shelves, due to inadequate policies, according to a new report launched today by the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics. The report shows that despite some improvements in supermarket antibiotic policies, most imports and branded products are not covered by the supermarket’s own rules for responsible antibiotic use. This means that there is no reliable way for shoppers to avoid buying food produced with irresponsible antibiotic use.  

This is a particular concern because the government is in trade talks with countries, like Australia, that use certain antibiotics for growth promotion, a practice that is banned in the UK. The ban on growth promoters does not apply to imported food, a loophole which neither the government nor most of the supermarkets are addressing. 

The Alliance has assessed the publicly available antibiotic policies of the UK’s ten leading supermarkets - Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Iceland, Lidl, Morrisons, M&S, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose - and found that they all now have a policy aimed at ending routine preventative antibiotic use in their supply chains. Two years ago, only six supermarkets had such a rule. Unfortunately, most supermarkets only apply their antibiotic policies to some or all of their own-brand products. Some policies only cover own-brand fresh meat, dairy and eggs of UK origin, leaving frozen produce, ready meals, ingredients and branded produce with no restrictions on antibiotic use, other than minimum legal standards. 

Suzi Shingler, of the Alliance, said: “Supermarkets have a responsibility to ensure that all meat, dairy and eggs they sell is produced without misusing antibiotics and comes from farms with good husbandry. The current mishmash of rules means that consumers cannot tell whether this is the case or not. Some imported food may even be produced by using antibiotics to make animals grow faster, a practice which has been banned in the UK for 15 years.

" As the UK is seeking to reach new trade deals with non-EU countries, it is more important than ever to have the same standards for imported and British produce. That’s why, today, the Alliance has launched a petition urging supermarkets to apply their rules for responsible antibiotic use to all animal products sold in their stores .” 

The petition is being supported by TV’s Dr Chris Van Tulleken, an infectious diseases doctor and MRC Clinical Research Fellow at University College London Hospital. He said: “We need to get antibiotic misuse out of the food chain as it is contributing to the global crisis of antibiotic resistance. If we no longer have reliable, effective antibiotics, we will see a lot more deaths due to infection. This will even affect young people, including children.” 

Resistance to antibiotics caused by the overuse of these medicines in livestock and humans is increasing, and threatens to undermine medical procedures such as hip replacements, cancer chemotherapy, organ transplants and the treatment of preterm babies. It is predicted that if the world doesn’t radically change how antibiotics are used, by 2050 antimicrobial resistance will kill more people than cancer does today. 

The key findings of the Alliance supermarket survey are: 

  • All ten leading UK supermarkets now have public farm antibiotic policies that include a ban on most or all of their UK own-brand suppliers from using antibiotics for routine disease prevention.  
  • M&S and Iceland are the only supermarkets that apply their antibiotic policies to all their suppliers of animal-derived foods. 
  • The Co-op, Iceland, M&S, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose policies apply to all their own-brand supply chains, including fresh, frozen, processed and imported produce. 
  •  ASDA, Aldi, Lidl, Morrisons and Tesco have policies that do not clearly cover all their own-brand produce. These policies often cover only UK-sourced own-brand fresh produce, such as raw meat, fresh milk and fresh eggs and do not explicitly include animal-derived ingredients in own-brand ready meals and processed food or imported food.  
  • M&S, Tesco and Waitrose are the only supermarkets to publish comprehensive, up-to-date data on the total antibiotic use in their food supply chains.
  • M&S and Morrisons are the only supermarkets that have banned the use of colistin, a last-resort antibiotic used to treat seriously ill people. Sainsbury’s and Waitrose suppliers also say they have not used colistin in recent years, although no ban is included in their policy. 
  • M&S has the most comprehensive antibiotic policies, followed by Waitrose. 

For more information please contact Suzi Shingler sshingler@saveourantibiotics.eu, 07540192652 or Cóilín Nunancnunan@saveourantibiotics.eu, 07422556772  

The Alliance to Save our Antibiotics is an alliance of health, medical, civil-society and animal-welfare groups campaigning to stop the overuse of antibiotics in animal farming. It was founded by Compassion in World Farming, the Soil Association and Sustain in 2009. Our vision is a world in which human and animal health and well-being are protected by food and farming systems that do not rely on routine antibiotic use. 

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