Is Three a Trend? UK Supermarket Giants Reveal Antibiotic Use in Food Supply Chains

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Marks and Spencer (M&S) recently released data on the quantities of antibiotics used by their meat and dairy suppliers, and fellow leading U.K. supermarket chains Waitrose and Asda have done the same. In all three cases, antibiotic use was below industry averages or targets.

The fact that antibiotic resistance is a growing health crisis is old news, and health organizations and activists have long been calling for a drastic reduction in the use of antibiotics on farm animals, a key cause of antibiotic resistance. However, administering low doses of antibiotics to livestock for the purpose of increasing growth wasn't banned in the US until 2017, in contrast to the EU, where the practice was ended in 2006.

In 2016, antibiotic use on chicken farms supplying M&S was less than a quarter of the industry average of 17 mg per population control unit (PCU), or kilogram. For Waitrose, this figure in 2016 was 5 mg/PCU, and for Asda, it was 7.7 mg/PCU.

Moreover, it’s not just these three supermarkets that have been successful in reducing antibiotics in their chicken supply chains. The broader industry, with an average of 17 mg/PCU, has already achieved the 2020 target of 25 mg/PCU set by the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance.

The situation is less rosy when it comes to pig farms, where the industry average use of antibiotics in 2016 was 183 mg/PCU, far above the 99 mg/PCU RUMA 2020 target. M&S, however, achieved this threshold, with antibiotic levels of 41 mg/PCU in both 2016 and 2017. Waitrose’s 2016 antibiotic usage was estimated to be 50-75 mg/PCU, and Asda is currently collecting this data from its suppliers.

Among the three supermarket chains, M&S is the only one confidently meeting the 21 mg/PCU target for dairy cattle, with 2017 levels at 13 mg/PCU. Asda’s survey of 30,000 cattle revealed a 20 mg/PCU average, and Waitrose gave a range of 15-25 mg/PCU. Here, the industry average is 26 mg/PCU.

M&S’ report was limited to chickens, pigs and dairy cattle, but Asda and Waitrose also released data on a number of other animals and animal products. Here, we’ll look at a few of them.

Duck supply chains are comparatively low in antibiotic use, with an industry average of 3 mg/PCU (far below 2020 targets of 25 mg/PCU). Waitrose and Asda both reported figures similar to the industry average.

For beef cattle, the 2020 target is 10 mg/PCU, which both Waitrose and Asda met. When it comes to turkeys, the two supermarket chains came in well under the industry average of 86 mg/PCU, as well as the 2020 target of 50 mg/PCU. Waitrose reported a range of 10-15 mg/PCU in 2016, and Asda 20 mg/PCU.

All of this raises hopes that other food retailers will follow in their lead and be more transparent about antibiotic levels in their supply chains. And as for the U.S., when fast food companies like McDonald’s and Wendy’s are phasing antibiotics out of their meat supply chains, a trend is surely under way.

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