The British public could be buying imported meat, dairy and eggs produced with irresponsible antibiotic use, a new report has found.
Such produce could still be making its way on to UK supermarket shelves, the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics said in its report released on Thursday (18 November).
Despite some improvements in supermarket antibiotic policies, it found that most imports and branded products are not covered by the retailer's own rules for responsible antibiotic use.
This means that there is no reliable way for shoppers to avoid buying food produced with irresponsible antibiotic use, the campaign group explained.
This is a particular concern because the government is in trade talks with countries such as the US and Australia, that use antibiotics for growth promotion, a practice banned in the UK.
The ban on growth promoters does not apply to imported food, a loophole which the alliance says neither the government nor most of the supermarkets are addressing.
The group assessed the publicly available antibiotic policies of the UK’s ten leading supermarkets and found they all now have a policy aimed at ending routine preventative antibiotic use in their supply chains.
Two years ago, only six supermarkets had such a rule. However, most supermarkets only apply their antibiotic policies to some or all of their own-brand products.
Some policies only cover own-brand fresh meat, dairy and eggs of UK origin, leaving frozen produce, ready meals, ingredients and branded produce with no restrictions on antibiotic use, other than minimum legal standards.
Suzi Shingler, of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotic, said supermarkets had a responsibility to ensure that all meat, dairy and eggs were produced without misusing antibiotics.
"The current mishmash of rules means that consumers cannot tell whether this is the case or not," she added.
"Some imported food may even be produced by using antibiotics to make animals grow faster, a practice which has been banned in the UK for 15 years.
" As the UK is seeking to reach new trade deals with non-EU countries, it is more important than ever to have the same standards for imported and British produce.
"That’s why, today, the Alliance has launched a petition urging supermarkets to apply their rules for responsible antibiotic use to all animal products sold in their stores.”
The petition is being supported by TV’s Dr Chris Van Tulleken, an infectious diseases doctor and MRC Clinical Research Fellow at University College London Hospital.
“We need to get antibiotic misuse out of the food chain as it is contributing to the global crisis of antibiotic resistance," Dr Van Tulleken said.
"If we no longer have reliable, effective antibiotics, we will see a lot more deaths due to infection. This will even affect young people, including children.”
Resistance to antibiotics caused by the overuse of these medicines in livestock and humans is increasing, and threatens to undermine medical procedures such as hip replacements and cancer chemotherapy.
Scientists predict that if the world doesn’t radically change how antibiotics are used, by 2050 antimicrobial resistance will kill more people than cancer does today.