The use of antibiotics in animals destined for the food chain is in the news a great deal this week, with reports yesterday from the US about the risks to human health being followed by more evidence today that hormone use is declining across the Atlantic under pressure from consumer groups.
Now the UK's Soil Association, the organic food promoter, has highlighted the case of controversial antibiotic growth promoters which are banned elsewhere in Europe being used in chickens reared in the UK following a rise in chicken health problems.
While scientists in the US debate whether there is in fact any risk from growth promoters, and indeed whether the risk to human health is greater without antibiotic use, most Europeans still firmly believe that the use of such drugs in the food chain is unnecessary and undesirable.
But a change to the standards of the Little Red Tractor UK farm assurance scheme means that most of the 14 million chickens sold every week to British consumers can now receive daily doses of the growth promoter.
The Soil Association claimed that up to 85 per cent of all chickens sold in the UK are reared under the Assured Chicken Production scheme - a Little Red Tractor farm assurance scheme launched two years ago with support from the government and all the major supermarkets. One of the principal standards of the ACP scheme was that it prohibited the use of antibiotic growth promoters, but not any more.
However, the Soil Association said it would fight the introduction of the antibiotics, claiming that it had evidence that they were being used illegally under European law even though they are still licensed for use in the UK.
"Previously, growth promoters were widely used in the poultry industry with daily doses given in chicken feed. The drugs are cheap and are used to accelerate the rate at which chickens grow, allowing them to be slaughtered at a younger age," the Association explained.
"The result was chickens that grew at an unnaturally fast rate but which had little natural ability to fight disease. Antibiotic growth promoters were banned by Assured Chicken Production following evidence that the misuse of antibiotics on farms was leading to resistance to important medical drugs."
However, the Association claims, the standards were "quietly changed" in June and antibiotic growth promoters are now allowed on the "specific recommendation of the responsible veterinarian". The change was introduced because of increasing concern about the health of chickens from both supermarkets and vets - an echo of what the American scientists discovered in their survey of antibiotic use.
But the Soil Association claims that the antibiotics being used- avilamycin and flavomycin - are not licensed as veterinary medicines and that their use to control disease is specifically prohibited under feed additives legislation. It has written to UK Environment Minister Margaret Beckett highlighting the issue and calling on the government to take action.
Richard Young, policy advisor at the Soil Association, said: "The use of antibiotics helps to produce cheap chickens and we are very concerned that a large proportion of the industry will now be tempted to use them once again. Sick birds must of course be treated, but the real reason behind this change is that many producers are still keeping birds too intensively and simply switching between drugs to mask the disease problems this causes.
"There are very real concerns about the consequences for human health of using these drugs - in particular, increased use of avilamycin could threaten our ability to fight new strains of highly infectious 'superbugs'. These antibiotics have been successfully eradicated in a number of European countries, such as Denmark and Sweden and there is no reason why the UK should lag behind." A very different view on the Danish situation than that put forward by the US scientists.
Antibiotics are most widely used where chickens are kept in cramped and damp conditions, with no natural ventilation, where diseases spread rapidly, the Association said. Organic standards insist that chickens are kept free-range with fresh pasture on a regular basis. The Soil Association also restricts the number of birds that can be housed in a single unit.
The Soil Association believes the poultry industry should make a concerted effort to move away from drug dependency and towards well-designed free-range systems, such as those used by organic producers. Where this is not possible, most of the problems for which these drugs are being used could be solved by a reduction in the density at which the birds are kept, changes to their diet and the introduction of fresh air, it claims.
Under proposals put forward by EU commissioner David Byrne in March 2002, all remaining antibiotic growth promoters should be phased out by January 2006. However, industry representatives have already indicated their intention to oppose this.