The Belgian knowledge centre "Antimicrobial Consumption and Resistance in Animals" (AMCRA), under the chairmanship of Prof. Jeroen Dewulf, is taking up the fight against the use of antibiotics in Belgian livestock. Via the antibiotics covenant 2016 - 2020, which started to take shape in 2014, AMCRA defined ambitious targets for the drastic reduction of antibiotic use by 2020, with 2011 serving as the reference year.
The recently published BelVet-SAC Report 2020 not only looked at the consumption of the past year, but also at the evolution of antibiotic use from 2011 to 2020. It showed that during that period, the quantities of feed medicated with antibiotics in the Belgian livestock sector decreased by 70.4%. At the same time, the use of critically important antibiotics was reduced by 70.1% and the overall use of antibiotics was reduced by 40.2%.
However, this means that the highly ambitious targets of the covenant 2016 - 2020 have only been partially achieved. Although the target for reducing the use of feeds medicated with antibiotics has been exceeded by more than 20%, overall antibiotic use in both livestock production and domestic animals has remained below target by almost 10%. As for critical antibiotics, they were on track to meet their target but this goal was thwarted by an increase in the use of fluoroquinolones (+32.1%) in Belgian poultry farming. Thanks to the good results of the previous years, fortunately there is only a 4.9% gap to be bridged to reach the 2020 target.
Nevertheless, AMCRA coordinator Dr. med. vet Fabiana Dal Pozzo points to the significant progress that has been made: "Since 2012, the use of colistin in Belgian veterinary medicine has decreased by 71.3%. This is an important signal because this critical antibiotic is used in human medicine as a last resort for serious infections with multi-resistant bacteria."
The benchmark system initiated by AMCRA, which allows Belgian livestock farmers to compare their antibiotic use with that of their professional colleagues, also makes sense to the veterinarian: "If necessary, this opens up the possibility for livestock farmers to take corrective measures together with their company veterinarian."
In terms of monitoring antibiotic resistance, AMCRA says there are also positive results to report: "We found that the downward trend in the number of multi-resistant E. coli bacteria derived from animals continued in 2020, as did the decline in antibiotic resistance for critically important antibiotics."
Driven by their shared ambition to further reduce antibiotic use, AMCRA, along with the Federal Government and all relevant sector partners, developed a new strategy for the period 2021-2024 that was approved in early 2021. One of the aims is to set animal-specific limits at farm level. The next phase has also begun for feed medicated with antibiotics: by the end of 2024, the sector wants to reduce this type of feed by 75% compared to 2011. This should then be completely eliminated by 2030.
To achieve this goal, a number of changes are being made. For example, veterinarians must provide data on the prescribed use of antibiotics. In addition, benchmarking will be carried out not only on farms, but also on veterinarians. If the use of antibiotics is remarkably high, a correction programme will be drawn up. In the future, no more than one per cent of farms should fall into the category of major users.
The antibiotic colistin is also clearly on AMCRA's radar. "In order to achieve the target of 1 mg per kilogram of biomass by the end of 2024, a further reduction of the drug is essential. That is why the Belgian feed industry has committed to completely banning colistin additives in animal feed by the end of 2021 at the latest," explains the AMCRA coordinator.
With regard to the total use of antibiotics in livestock farming, the sector is also pursuing an ambitious target for 2024: by then, the use of antibiotics must be reduced by 65% compared to 2011.