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Catering companies – feeding the antibiotic crisis?

News Section Icon Published 10/12/2023

Children being served food in a school cafeteria

A first of its kind report launched today (12th October) by the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics – of which we are a founding member – reveals that the UK’s top catering companies are failing to address the overuse of antibiotics. The report has found that inadequate Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering, and weak or non-existent antibiotic policies from the UK’s ten leading catering companies, are failing to control antibiotic use in the production of meat, dairy and eggs served in many schools, universities, colleges, and healthcare establishments. 

A growing problem

Antibiotic resistance is a growing global problem, caused by the overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals. Each year about 7,600 deaths in the UK and 1.27 million worldwide are caused by antibiotic resistance.

Despite the scale of the problem, the report Catering companies – feeding the antibiotic crisis? finds that catering companies are failing to guard against antibiotic overuse in their supply chains.

More must be done

Five companies – apetito, ISS, Newrest, OCS, and WSH – have no publicly available antibiotic policy. The other five companies – Aramark, CH&CO, Compass Group, Elior and Sodexo – do have antibiotic policies, but none currently prohibit the routine use of antibiotics or collect any data on antibiotic use in their supply chains.

The UK Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services, which establish minimum standards for catering in public-sector organisations, also make no mention of the need for responsible antibiotic use. These standards are currently being reviewed and a government response to a consultation will be published later this year. Unfortunately, the Government’s proposals for new standards, published last year, still make no mention of any antibiotic standards.

No excuse for poor policies

“We know that resistant bacteria can be transmitted to people on food, so there is really no excuse for catering companies having such poor policies,” said Cóilín Nunan, Scientific Advisor for the Alliance. “All caterers should source food produced without routine antibiotic use and make more effort to source animal foods from farming systems that have higher levels of animal health and welfare.”

“The Government needs to introduce antibiotic standards for public procurement urgently, backed up by effective monitoring and enforcement. The Government says that it aims to deliver higher quality meals to hospitals and schools, but unless it takes action on antibiotic use, it will be failing to protect the health of patients and children.”

Big business

The UK contract-catering industry is big business, with a market value of £4.4 billion, and is involved in serving some of the most vulnerable people in society. Nine out ten of the companies supply educational establishments (eight in the UK) and nine supply healthcare establishments (eight in the UK).

Consultant Microbiologist, Dr Giuditta Sanna said: “I am shocked to learn that while my colleagues and I are dealing with patients with untreatable life-threatening infections and are making so much effort to limit our own use of antibiotics, the catering companies that provide NHS and school meals are doing such a poor job of controlling antibiotic use in their supply chains. They should not be permitting routine antibiotic use in food-producing animals, just to compensate for the unhygienic conditions in which many of these animals are kept.”

Lagging behind

British farm antibiotic use has been reduced by 55% since 2014, following voluntary action by farmers, vets and supermarkets. A campaign by the Alliance and initiatives like the Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare, have helped encourage the UK’s ten leading supermarkets to all adopt antibiotic policies which ban routine preventative use in their own-brand UK produce. However, the Alliance’s research into catering companies has found their antibiotic policies are lagging well behind those of UK supermarkets.

Find out more about the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics.


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