Save our Antibiotics

Campaign summary

While the dangers of overusing antibiotics in human medicine are well known, the impact of the immense volumes used in intensive livestock farming – and their link to strains of resistant bacteria threatening human health – has been severely under-publicised.

At least 50% of antibiotics worldwide are now used on animals, and a huge proportion of these unnecessarily – to prevent disease in poor-welfare environments where large numbers of livestock are kept crammed together.

In order to help protect the life-saving properties of our antibiotics, I was commissioned by Compassion In World Farming (CIWF) to drive a campaign against their non-essential use in farming. I helped to:

  • Bring together a Europe-wide alliance of campaign groups (for high-impact lobbying)
  • Get wide-ranging media coverage – bringing the agricultural misuse of antibiotics to increased public attention
  • Lobby for and achieve reduction targets for agricultural antibiotic use at EU level

My role

  • Campaign strategist
  • Built collaborative partnerships with like-minded organisations and leading experts on the issue
  • Jointly devised campaign action and lobbying
  • Researched and wrote key campaign report

Full project details

The issue

Huge quantities of antibiotics are used each year in the world’s factory farms, to compensate for the overcrowded, disease-inducing conditions in which animals are kept. In fact, without this pharmaceutical crutch, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to keep intensively farmed animals disease-free and alive. The fact that antibiotics promote the growth of livestock has also been a key driver for their excessive use, and although it’s now illegal to use antibiotics for growth enhancement in the EU, the effect continues to be exploited via other permitted uses.

Each dose of antibiotics given to an animal (or person) is an opportunity for resistant bacteria to develop, and the regular, low doses given to food animals represent a particularly high risk. Because many of the antibiotics used on farms overlap with those used in human medicine, bugs resistant to farm-used antibiotics can readily develop resistance to similar antibiotics prescribed for people. Resistant strains of Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli from human infections have been traced back to factory farms, as have new strains of MRSA.

In the context of widespread, routine misuse, antibiotics are failing to keep pace with the speed at which bacteria are adapting to resist them. It’s a situation that led the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Dr Margaret Chan, to warn of:

a post-antibiotic era, in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and once again, kill unabated.

Dr Margaret Chan, Statement for World Health Day, April 2011

Despite such warnings from the world’s public health experts, at least half of all antibiotics produced globally are currently used on animals. The overarching aim of the Save our Antibiotics campaign was, and remains, to end the non-essential use of these life-saving drugs in farming.

Antibiotics must be used in moderation in agricultural settings and only when necessary for animal welfare.

Sir Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer for England, 2008

How I took action

Smart strategy

My first task was to review CIWF’s work on the issue to date and devise a 3-year strategy with staggered goals:

  • Short-term: Create the campaign
  • Medium term: Prove there’s a problem
  • Long-term: Generate public and political pressure
Joining forces

To increase our impact and open up opportunities for funding, a key tactic was to identify and partner with like-minded organisations. I approached Sustain and the Soil Association, who both agreed to sign up to a new ‘Alliance to Save our Antibiotics’. The Alliance continues to deliver initiatives from our original strategy, and has now grown to include 34 supporter members from across Europe.

Mirroring the tactics of the agri-pharmaceutical lobby, I also built links with campaigners, researchers and official bodies in the US and Europe, including the PEW Trust’s ‘Moms for Antibiotic Awareness’ campaign, the Euro Group for Animal Welfare and key officials within the European Medicines Agency. Pooling information and ideas with these groups strengthened our campaign’s power, and the tacit endorsement of the European Medicines Agency of the main thrust of our arguments in particular helped our credibility with journalists. This was an important factor in our gaining press exposure in the national papers, as well as farming journals.

Wide-reaching comms

The misuse of antibiotics in farming is a hugely complex issue, but we needed a way of making it accessible to the public. To achieve this, I set about translating a highly technical, 70-page scientific report into an essential campaign case report of under a third that length – ‘Case Study of a Health Crisis’. I also created a 4-page campaign summary and one-page online taster. These tools allowed us to communicate our campaign message effectively to policy-makers, the media and a wider audience.

Throughout this process, I worked closely with Dr Jacky Turner, the original scientific researcher, to ensure that my summary of her work remained thorough and accurate. I also secured the help of Cóilín Nunan and Richard Young, two prominent, long-standing independent researchers on the issue, to feed in their expertise and peer-review our work.

Given that animal welfare charity CIWF was the lead organisation behind the Alliance, it was important to challenge the assumption people might have that Save our Antibiotics was solely focused on animals. A key objective of my strategy was to get across the message that the campaign issue had far-reaching implications for human health.

With this in mind I approached Chris Butler, Professor of Primary Care and Public Health at Cardiff University, who specialises in common infections and the appropriate use of antibiotics. Having convinced Professor Butler that our campaign aimed to save human lives, and was therefore relevant to his work, I was able to secure his endorsement. He agreed to write the foreword for the case report – a major coup, as it framed the campaign as an issue of critical importance for human health, making it a much bigger media story.

Antibiotic Anna: pig lobbies the EC

A major target for our lobbying was the European Commission – which sets regulations for the use of antibiotics in farming within the EU. CIWF happened to have a 2.5 ft-high clear perspex pig left over from a previous campaign, and we hit on the idea of filling it with oversized ‘antibiotic capsules’ to create an attention-grabbing prop which would encapsulate (sic!) our message. ‘Antibiotic Anna’ was taken to Brussels, paraded around the city and used as part of a stunt outside the Commission building, where she attracted much interest. Anna was a simple yet powerful means of exposing what the intensive farming industry was at pains to hide: that factory-farmed animals are being pumped full of pills for profit – at the cost of human health, as well as animal welfare.

Campaign outcomes

  • The formation of a Europe-wide ‘Alliance to Save our Antibiotics’ – which is now 34 members strong, and continues to deliver campaign objectives set out in my 3-year strategy
  • Reduction targets for the use of antibiotics set by the European Commission for some EU member-state farms
  • A debate on the issue in the House of Commons, initiated by Zac Goldsmith, MP, which the campaign facilitated by providing context and collateral evidence
  • Increased public pressure on the UK Government to phase out the non-essential use of antibiotics in farming