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Caterers failing to tackle antibiotic use

Campaigners have called on the UK government to strengthen school and hospital food standards so that caterers are not contributing to the crisis of antibiotic resistance.

report by the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics (ASOA) concluded that inadequate government buying standards for food and catering, and weak or non-existent antibiotic policies from the UK’s ten leading catering companies, are failing to control antibiotic use in the production of meat, dairy, fish and eggs served in many schools, universities, colleges and healthcare establishments.

Antibiotic resistance is a growing global problem caused by the overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals. Each year about 7,600 deaths in the UK and 1.27 million worldwide are caused by antibiotic resistance, according to ASOA, which was founded in 2009 by Compassion in World Farming, the Soil Association and Sustain.

The campaign group assessed the 10 leading UK caterers on their antibiotic policies. It found that five companies – Apetito, ISS, Newrest, OCS, and WSH – have no publicly available antibiotic policy, while the remaining five – Aramark, CH&CO, Compass Group, Elior and Sodexo – do have antibiotic policies but none of them currently prohibit the routine use of antibiotics or collect any data on antibiotic use in their supply chains.

The report found only three companies – Aramark, CH&CO and Compass Group – state in their antibiotic policy that they intend to end routine preventative antibiotic use, and only CH&CO declares that this will be achieved by 2024. Elior is the only catering company whose policy restricts the use of antibiotics that the World Health Organisation has classified as “highest-priority critically important in human medicine”.

 “We know that resistant bacteria can be transmitted to people on food, so there is really no excuse for catering companies having such poor policies,” said Cóilín Nunan of the ASOA. “All caterers should source food produced without routine antibiotic use and make more effort to source animal foods from farming systems that have higher levels of animal health and welfare.”

Current government buying standards for food and catering services do not cover antibiotic use in supply chains. The government consulted last year on updating the standards with a response expected later this year, however the new standards make no mention of antibiotic use either.

“The government needs to introduce antibiotic standards for public procurement urgently, backed up by effective monitoring and enforcement,” added Nunan.

The EU banned the routine use of antibiotics for livestock in 2022 meaning that farmers are no longer able to give antibiotic treatments to prevent, rather than treat, illness or infection in animals. Campaigners have previously called on the UK government to follow the EU’s lead.

In a seminal 2016 government-commissioned report, leading economist Jim O’Neill warned that without policies to stop its spread, the 700,000 annual deaths attributable to antimicrobial resistance globally would increase to 10 million a year by 2050.