FARMERS have been kept in the dark when it comes rolling out changes in antibiotic use.

That was the strong message this week, as the Red Tractor scheme came under fire. As of June 1, 2018, the quality assurance scheme are changing their rules on antibiotic use and, although they are a primarily English organisation, those working under English supply contracts north of the border, and therefore who are under the jurisdiction of the Red Tractor scheme, will be affected.

The changes – which are in relation to High Priority Critically Important Antibiotics – would mean that this medication would require concurrent laboratory testing to prove an animals need for them, in order for antibiotics to be supplied.

The cost of these enforced lab tests are also being questioned, with testing for bacteriological and sensitivity issues being cited as costing £35-50, a cost which will be incurred by the farmer.

Alistair McClelland, a vet with Academy Vets, based in Stranraer, explained that, while they did not disagree with the principle of the changes – which is relating to lessening unnecessary antibiotic use – they were shocked at the lack of communication on Red Tractor's part.

"These changes are taking effect on June 1, and the reality is that very few farmers are aware of it. Many dairy farmers in south-west Scotland are under the Red Tractor scheme, and these changes haven't been well communicated to them.

"We as a practice tried to be proactive when we became aware of the issue, and contacted all the farmers on our books that will be effected, but that doesn't change the fact that Red Tractor should have been the ones to do it."

There is also a worry that Quality Meat Scotland will follow in the footsteps of the Red Tractor scheme and change their rulings on antibiotic use.

Discussing that, Alistair explained: "We have also been told that nothing is set in stone, but that it is 'highly likely' that, when they set their new standard at the end of this year, QMS will fall into line with Red Tractor, which takes the problem from being one that primarily effects dairy farmers in Scotland, to it effecting beef and sheep farmers up and down the country."

A QMS spokesman explained that, as things stand, they have no intention of carrying out similar changes. They stated that the quality assurance standards they currently get their livestock farmers to adhere to already includes the responsible and appropriate use of antibiotics, as long as a vet is involved, with no current need for the inclusion of pre-prescription laboratory testing.

NFU Scotland animal health and welfare policy manager, Penny Middleton explained: "It is NFUS' advice that critically important antibiotics should only be used as a last resort, but must still be available to promote high animal welfare.

"We raised some concerns with Red Tractor over their new standards, which require sensitivity testing of animals to be carried out before using critically important antibiotics.

"We have has assurances from Red Tractor that if a vet believes a certain crucially important antibiotics is the correct course of treatment, they will be able to commence that treatment, whilst running the new laboratory testing alongside it."

ScotGov chief vet, Sheila Voas described the move as, "not a bad thing, but also not rocket science". Ms Voas explained: "The move is essentially forcing farmers to do what they should already be doing, which is use antibiotics responsibly.

"People are not being stopped using them, and nothing is changing that will be to the detriment of the welfare of livestock, but what it will hopefully do is make livestock producers stop and think before they automatically reach for the antibiotic bottle.

BVA president, John Fishwick did, however, highlight the importance of the move, saying: “Measures to decrease the use of Critically Important Antibiotics play a crucial role in tackling the serious issue of antimicrobial resistance and we recommend that these antibiotics are only used as a last resort to prevent the further spread of disease and always under veterinary judgment and prescription.

"Whenever possible the decision to use Critically Important Antibiotics should be based on a sensitivity or diagnostic test but, if the situation is such that action needs to be taken immediately to protect animal health and welfare, it may be necessary to administer this group of antibiotics alongside running the tests.”