Livestock farmers have struggled more than most this year as a result of the late spring and summer drought, but there is some good news – total sales of antibiotics used in UK animals for food have fallen to their lowest level in 25 years.

According to a new report from Defra’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate, sales dropped by 18% between 2016 and 2017 to reach a low of 37 mg/kg, with sales between 2013 and 2017 falling 40%.

For the first time, the annual report presented data on the use of antibiotics in various sectors to include beef cattle, trout and salmon as well as poultry, pig, dairy, gamebird and egg-laying hen industries.

Rates of resistance in healthy pigs at slaughter have remained relatively stable between 2015 and 2017 for most antibiotics tested, however, a decline is being seen in E. coli coinciding with a reduction in antibiotic use in pigs.

The report also highlighted a further drop in sales of the highest priority antibiotics that are critically important for human health which includes a 94% reduction, compared to 2016, in the use of colistin, an antibiotic of last resort for use in people.

Colistin use is now at 0.001 mg/kg, putting it considerably below the European Medicines Agency’s target of using less than 1 mg/kg.

"These results show an encouraging reduction of antibiotic use in beef, pigs, poultry and other food-producing animals. I hope that the results will set a further example for our food and farming sectors to tackle the threat of antimicrobial resistance," said Lord Gardiner, minister for rural affairs and biosecurity.

However, Gwyn Jones, chairman of the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) pointed out there is still a lot more to do to safeguard animal health and welfare and food safety.

“Because a large percentage of products are used to treat multiple species of animal, figures for actual use by species, on farms, are critical to understand patterns in individual sectors.

“They are also needed to help those sectors to monitor, improve and get recognition for their achievements – and to meet their 2020 antibiotic use targets,” he added.

Most of the reductions over the past few years have come first from the poultry meat sector, then pig and gamebird sectors, which have all released comprehensive usage figures covering almost all their producers, RUMA explained.

Smaller datasets are being accessed for dairy and beef – a big step forward – but national data on these sectors remains harder to capture due to their more diverse supply chains, the large number of producers involved and greater prevalence of mixed enterprise operations.

Mr Jones said: “This means we can’t be sure of how representative the figures are. For example, antibiotic usage figures in the 2017 report indicate that dairy cows fell from 26mg/kg in 2016 to 17mg/kg in 2017.

“This is based on one large dataset of veterinary practice prescriptions – the best we currently have – but we must be mindful that because this database covers 31% of dairy cows, it may not be typical of the whole dairy sector.

He added: “Recent studies have also suggested that while few antibiotics are used in the best dairy operations, a small number of farms could be responsible for a large portion of use.

“Improving the quality of data collection can only help us better understand where we really are, and inform and advise those who need to change their practices,” he said.

Antimicrobial Resistance occurs when the micro-organisms that cause infection survive exposure to a medicine that would normally kill them or stop their growth.

It poses a major threat to modern medicine and is estimated to cost £66 trillion in lost productivity to the global economy.

In 2013 the UK government launched a strategy to reduce the development and spread of antibiotic resistance in animals and humans.

As part of this, it provided advice to the food-producing animal industry and veterinary professions, encouraging more responsible use of antibiotics to protect medicines for the future.