The warnings are unavoidable. The threat of antibiotic resistance has once again become headline news with the chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies warning of a ‘post-antibiotic apocalypse’ and the end of modern medicine if evolving strains of bacteria continue along the path of becoming resistant to drugs.
At present about 700,000 people a year die from drug-resistant infections. However, this global figure is growing relentlessly and could reach 10 million a year by 2050.
Colistin is known in human medicine as the antibiotic of last resort, used when all else fails. However, at a recent meeting of scientists at the American Society of Microbiology, a disturbing discovery was reported. Bacteria containing a gene which provides resistance to colistin had spread rapidly around the world since it was originally discovered just 18 months ago. In one area of China, 25% of hospital patients now carry the gene, it was reported.
Routine operations such as hip replacements and caesarean sections could once again become extremely hazardous, verging on impossible, and common infections could prove deadly.
Farming has a critical role
The World Health Organisation has been warning for a while now that farming has a critical role to play in trying to tackle this worrying situation. Reducing the routine use of antimicrobials in farm animals is vital, the organisation says.
In many parts of the world, farm animals are fed antimicrobials in their feed daily, as a prophylactic. That’s not an approach used in the UK, but antibiotics are used on a routine basis to manage disease challenges.
But now on some farms, the UK approach to antibiotics is changing. Earlier this year, St David’s Poultry vets set up a new business called Applied Bacterial Control, which takes a completely different approach to managing the health of intensively reared poultry.
Working with Faccenda on its company farms, staggeringly, in two years, there has been a reduction in antibiotic usage by 70% through what ABC describes as “a holistic approach”.
Natural remedies, probiotics and essential oils are not the normal approach of scientifically minded vets, and on a tour of Faccenda’s farms in Oxfordshire in October, ABC’s founder Richard Turner admits he initially struggled to square his thinking with the idea of herbal oils, but the scale of the challenge regarding antibiotic resistance forced him to change his mind.
“Antimicrobial resistance is a world human health issue,” says Turner. “Antibiotic use in agriculture is also a growing concern for consumers so it’s really important we focus on it.”
Biopoint, a Poland-based supplier of herbal treatments to promote gut health is one of the companies working alongside Faccenda and ABC. It has been working on developing products that lead to antibiotic-free farms since it was founded in 2002. Concentrates made from herbs such as oregano and garlic are added to drinking water on the farm.
ChemVet, based in Demark, which supplies probiotics is another key firm. Its products include Biacton, a highly concentrated probiotic, which promotes lactic acid in the gut using lactobacillus farciminis as the active bacteria strain. Fed to poultry, it reduces the pathogens clostridium and campylobacter, therefore reducing the need to treat sick birds with antibiotics.
Seed, weed and feed
Over the past five years, St David’s Poultry Team has worked with all 80 of Faccenda’s farms, introducing new practices to maximise bird health. This started with giving newly arrived chicks a probiotic to encourage healthy gut development.
It also recommended Faccenda analyse its water and add in natural acids to keep it as clean as possible, with a yeast extract going into the chicken feed to bind any ‘bad’ bacteria in the gut and reduce the risk of infection taking hold. “We call this approach seed, weed and feed,” says Turner. “We seed the gut with healthy bacteria using probiotics, weed out the bad bacteria and feed the good bacteria with natural acids. The more healthy bacteria there are in the gut, the more competition there is against the bad ones which cause sickness.”
On farm, the pressure is to diagnose early and treat quickly with essential oils and other interventions. Treatment with antibiotics is not banned, but has been greatly reduced to a point where the level is about 3mg/kg.
As well as reducing dependence on drugs, there have been other welcome side effects. Faccenda farms have been finishing 100g heavier, half a day younger coinciding with the reduction of antibiotics, the firm says. Faccenda farms average 360 EPEF, finishing at 1.95kg at 33.5 days.
David Neilson is general manager for agriculture for Faccenda. “It’s like a Holland & Barrett approach to bird health,” he says. “We use essential oils, oregano and garlic. If the chickens get an upset tummy we use natural oils to help them recover rather than going straight in with antibiotics.”
Water acidification for the birds’ guts
At Silverstone Farm near Towcester, Northants, Turner explained the full acidification system. It uses Liquid Mineral Services (LMS) acids which are a mixture of short chained fatty acids (SCFA) designed to match the acidity and mineral characteristics of the water on the farm and drop the water pH to around pH5 to hold the acids in their undissociated form. The water is then chlorinated to control biofilm.
The system both cleans the drinker lines which is becoming more recognised as a requirement in all farm species, and delivers undissociated short chain fatty acids to the lower intestine, says Turner. “In the lower intestine, the bacteria, such as E. coli, campylobacter and some clostridial species, which prefer an alkaline environment, take the acid into the bacterial cell and this tends to acidify them which reduces their ability to grow. The SCFA are also used by acid loving bacteria to grow in a positive way. So, in effect you are feeding the microbiome and promoting the positive bacteria.”
Later the same day, at Faccenda’s Enstone farm near Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, Turner explained the role of litter burning equipment. Litter burning is not a core element of an ABC programme and its main function is to use litter as a by-product to produce heat. However, if bacteria resistant to antibiotics are spread on pasture, they might indirectly transfer to other species. Burning the litter rather than spreading it, is one way to break the cycle.
At Enstone, John Kenyon, one of the St David’s Poultry Team vets who is responsible for the health of the Faccenda company broilers, discussed the ABC protocols, the challenges of removing antibiotics and his experiences of using essential oils.
Some have effects on the bacteria, such as oregano mixtures, while others are effective also at moderating the effects of coccidia. Within the company there is also ongoing trials on using in feed essential oil mixtures to control coccidiosis.
The risk of going antibiotic-free
However, Neilson is cautious about any drive towards completely eliminating the use of antibiotics in farming. “Our antibiotic use is so low it’s almost unmeasurable, but if the birds need antibiotics to protect their welfare they must receive them. Our bird health and productivity is significantly better under this new approach – ultimately their welfare is the key to the whole system.”
Faccenda has also adopted a similar approach across its duck and turkey farms, and the wider industry has also been working to reduce antibiotic usage since 2011, when the British Poultry Council launched its antibiotic stewardship scheme. Headed by Faccenda’s agricultural director Reg Smith, this aims to encourage the recording and reduction of antibiotics in poultry farms across the UK.
As a result the whole poultry industry has slashed it antibiotic use by 44% between 2012 and 2015, while increasing production by 5%. “The scheme has been a great success, but there’s no reason why we can’t achieve more,” says Neilson. “We need investment in new products, technology and knowledge transfer to drive down antibiotic use and improve bird health further. This is a legacy we can pass on to future generations; we can all work together to solve common challenges.”
Richard Turner says it’s been a big learning curve for everyone involved. “The fact is antibiotics work and you can leave it to the last minute,” he says. Adopting a different approach requires better husbandry, and problems have to be diagnosed early. “It is easy to be very comfortable with big pharma,” he says.
“You need money to be in the mood to try something new out. You need the right clients,” says Turner. But the results have been good, farmers are happy, and so is Faccenda. Shunning drugs in favour of herbs and supplements is unusual for a veterinary practice, but times are changing, and the results speak for themselves. “Clients don’t think I’m a monk anymore,” he says.
Faccenda fact file
Faccenda supplies 55% of Asda’s fresh chicken and pioneered roast in the bag packaging. It acquired Cranberry Foods four years ago, and Cherry Valley duck business two years ago.
Ian Faccenda is the chief executive and his father Robin, the founder, is chairman. Ian Faccenda’s wife works for Asda.
The business owns 151 farms rearing chicken, turkey and duck; it has four hatcheries and two feed mills.
Its Brackley processing plants processes two million birds per week. It was opened in 1972 and was the first chilled poultry plant in the UK; before that nearly all the chicken sold was frozen. It takes in chickens from company farms, which make up 30% of its volume, and contact farms, which make up 70% of its volume.
It also runs a processing plant in Telford, which opened in 2015 and is fully automated.
It’s turkey processing plant is at Hollybank, and during the year it processes 80,000 turkeys per week, rising to 250,000 over the Christmas period.
At Cherry Valley is Caistor, 110,000 ducks per week are processed from 26 farms. It is a key UK site for duck production.
Faccenda’s poultry is sold mainly through retail outlets, with 85% of its output going into this channel. It has recently started supplying Amazon Fresh, which at the moment is a low volume, but is expected to grow rapidly.
It supplies 8% of its poultry to the wholesale market; 6% into foodservice customers such as Nando’s, Mitchell & Butlers, and Toby Carvery; and 1% is supplied to food manufacturers.
It has a policy that no workers are on zero hours contacts, it doesn’t use agency staff for longer than 12 week, and everyone earns above the living wage, regardless of age and including apprentices.