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Superbug-polluted rivers pose serious health threat

News Section Icon Published 11/24/2022

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On Tuesday (22nd November), during World Antimicrobial Resistance Week (18th – 24th November), the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics – of which Compassion is a founding member – released a new investigation with World Animal Protection and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The findings reveal UK rivers around factory farms are awash with antibiotic resistant bacteria, prompting urgent calls for the UK Government to ban the routine use of antibiotics on healthy farm animals. 

Worrying findings

Samples were taken at rivers close to 12 farms across England (eight intensive, four extensive). Superbugs were found in rivers and waterways in areas with high levels of factory farming located nearby. Two common bacteria that can cause infection and illness in humans as well as animals are Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus). Antibiotic-resistant E. coli and S. aureus were isolated in rivers adjacent to intensive pig and chicken farms and higher-welfare outdoor farms, as well as in slurry runoff from intensive dairy farms. Antibiotic resistance genes were also found.

None the four higher-welfare outdoor pig or chicken farms tested had higher levels of any type of resistance downstream than was found upstream, meaning no evidence was found that these higher-welfare farms are contributing to superbugs in the environment. In contrast, five of the eight intensive farms had more of at least one type of antibiotic resistance downstream than upstream.

Action needed - now

Around 80% of all farmed animals in the UK are raised on factory farms, where squalid, cramped and cruel conditions force the need for wide-scale preventative antibiotic use – without which those animals would not survive. Superbugs from factory farms reach people in many ways via our rivers, for example, in drinking water, swimming and recreational activities, or the consumption of fish from contaminated waters. Unless the UK Government takes action, we face a human health crisis whereby disease can no longer be treated due to antibiotic resistance.

Whilst the UK farming industry has reduced its antibiotic use by 55% since 2014, far greater reductions are still needed. Unfortunately, the UK Government has refused to follow the EU’s lead and ban preventative group treatments, despite having previously promised to do so. The World Health Organisation estimates that 1.27 million people die globally each year as a direct result of antimicrobial resistance, and this will rise to 10 million by 2050 if action is not taken now. This would far outweigh the impact of Covid 19 and make minor infections and common surgeries potentially deadly.

Cóilín Nunan, the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics’ Scientific Adviser, said: “The rise of antibiotic resistance already kills more than a million people a year globally and scientists are saying that resistant bacteria in the environment are adding to the problem. Most antibiotics taken by people or animals are excreted, along with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When manure or slurry is spread on land, this increases the number of resistant bacteria in soils and water, and these can end up on crops. The best way to reduce farming’s impact is to make large cuts to antibiotic use, and this means keeping animals in healthier conditions, so they rarely need medication.”

Engaging with MPs

Yesterday (23rd November), we attended an event hosted by World Animal Protection and the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics at the Houses of Parliament, calling on MPs to back measures to end the routine use of antibiotics on UK farms.

James West, our Senior Policy Manager, who attended the Parliamentary Reception said: “The results of this new investigation are worrying. They provide yet more evidence of the far-reaching implications of factory farms on animal welfare, human health, and our environment. There is an urgent need for change.

“It was great to see MPs engaging on the topic yesterday in Parliament. We will continue campaign to ensure the Government deliver on their promise to end the routine preventive use of antibiotics which help to prop up factory farms, allowing animals to be kept in conditions which would otherwise make them sick and leading us into a silent pandemic where antibiotics become ineffective for treating humans.”

Alliance to Save our Antibiotics

In 2009, Compassion, the Soil Association, and Sustain founded the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, an alliance of health, medical, environmental and animal-welfare groups working to stop the overuse of antibiotics in animal farming. Find out more about the work of the Alliance.


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