Marks and Spencer and Waitrose tell all about antibiotics in farming

22 December 2017

Intensively reared chicken

Every year, the gadgets get better. The number of things we can do multiply. Electric cars are the way of the future. We’re more connected than ever before. And, across the world, the number of people living in absolute poverty has been going down.

It would be easy to assume that continual forward progress is the only possible future, barring the odd meteorite collision, that we can imagine for ourselves. That there are no problems so serious that we cannot find an answer to them.

That may be the case, but it is not a foregone conclusion. Take, for instance, the emerging situation around antibiotics. These miraculous drugs helped to take us out of the dark ages when it came to medicines. It meant that we could have all manner of operations performed and, unlike in ages gone past when the risk to life would be dire from infections, we could pretty much guarantee a high level of safety.

Those days may soon be over, as world-wide antibiotics are massively over-used and bacteria emerge as a result that are more resistant to them.

Bingo, just like that - back to the dark ages. A formerly routine hip surgery becomes life-threatening. This is not the message from some doom-mongering campaign group. The UK’s chief medical officer has warned it has a strong chance of being a reality in just a few years.

We’re not there yet, but some big changes have to take place. One of the main focuses must inevitably be food supply chains. The routine over-use of antibiotics in animal farming is particularly in the crosshairs. If animals are given doses of antibiotics as a preventative measure - and particularly if some of those antibiotics are the same ones that are essential to humans - the rise of superbugs is all but inevitable. 

Now we’re seeing the first supermarkets taking action to bring transparency to their own supply chains on the topic. 

Marks and Spencer moved first - publishing details of the use of antibiotics by its farmers. Within days of the move, Waitrose followed suit.

It’s no accident it’s these two that have moved first. A recent study by the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics rated Waitrose as the best supermarket for managing antibiotic use. Marks and Spencer was next, along with Sainsbury’s and Tesco. Lidl was the worst performing - although it’s worth noting that such results are heavily influenced by whether the company discloses its activity - it’s not a guarantee that the company actually doesn’t take any.

The data from both Waitrose and M&S showed that their suppliers used fewer antibiotics than the industry average - in some cases significantly fewer. 

And, very important for the time of year, Waitrose also included data on antibiotic use for its turkeys. It may be largely once a year, but typically turkeys are fed higher doses of antibiotics than the ubiquitous chicken.

Elsewhere there are also signs of hope. Fast food giant McDonald's recently announced that it would be eliminating the use of antibiotics that have a human health role from its huge chicken supply chain.

Hopefully, this is just the beginning of the trend, and we’ll see the others following suit.