Investigation into alleged unregulated sale of farm animal antibiotics reportedly underway

Claimed vets in the State being bypassed by ‘certain cohorts of farmers’ who acquire ‘strong and controlled’ animal medicines over the counter in some outlets North of the border

Claims dismissed by farm organisation

Sligo News File

It’s understood an investigation has been launched by the Northern Ireland Department of Health following RTE Prime Time programme in which it was claimed that a number of outlets in the North are selling animal medicines over the counter without any clinical supervision of the animals they are being supplied for.

The programme reported a Galway-based veterinary representative as saying there was obviously a supply coming to the South, especially to some larger industrial farms, a situation veterinary practitioners would have complained about for years.

Prime Time alleged it had obtained secretly recorded footage showing two men purchasing veterinary medication over the counter even though their farms or their animals were not known to the outlet that was selling the drugs.

One of the products sold, the programme said, was a “High Priority Critically Important Antibiotic.” It did not name the product, but stated veterinarians described it as a medication of “last resort.”

It referenced comments of international food safety expert Professor Chris Elliot, head of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queens University who warned that Ireland’s food exports could be under threat owing to a failure of relevant regulatory bodies to enforce measures governing the sale of animal medicines. Prof Elliott, led the British Government’s independent review of food systems following the 2013 horse meat scandal.

According to Prime Time, Prof Elliott found the RTE footage “totally shocking” and “totally inappropriate”.

He added, said Prime Time, that if the drugs were administered by farmers who don’t understand the implications of the use of these antibiotics, there was a much higher likelihood of residues entering the food chain.

“Whenever livestock are given antibiotics, there has to be a period of time where it enters their system, does the job, and then is cleared from the system.

“We call it the withdrawal period. Veterinary practitioners will be very, very clear about that withdrawal period.”

There is a concern that, if animal antibiotics are used inappropriately, residues could end up in the food chain.

Authorities, the programme added, have been working hard to reduce antibiotic use in animals, since antimicrobial resistance has become one of the most difficult challenges facing human and animal health in recent years.

But now a farm representative has taken issue with claims farmers do not understand, or ignore withdrawal periods, when using antibiotics to treat livestock.

Hugh Farrell, Chairman of the ICSA Animal Health and Welfare committee said: “The correct use of antibiotics in the treatment of livestock is a central part of Bord Bia inspections and is also a requirement for cross compliance under the CAP funded schemes.” .

He went on: “Under the CAP schemes, around 7,000 farm inspections are carried out annually – many of which focus on animal medicines – so farmers are highly conscious of all the issues surrounding the management and correct use of antibiotics on farm. In addition, the animal remedy register and medicines cabinet is a central part of the inspection process for the Bord Bia Quality Assurance scheme in which all participants are audited at least once every 18 months.”

Mr Farrell said his assessment is supported by the fact that out of almost 17,000 samples taken from farms and food processing facilities here there was an issue with just 53, which is one third of 1%.

“Any comprehensive residue testing regime which shows a compliance rate of 99.7% proves conclusively that the system is working well, and the tiny number of infractions could potentially be accounted for by basic human error.”

“The report gives clarity that there is little, or no antibiotic residue found. This reinforces the fact that our farmers are working professionally and diligently and to the highest standards. It is also important to note that most animals who are treated with antibiotics are not factory fit, in that they are mostly cows post calving, or calves experiencing respiratory difficulties. This further reduces any potential for antibiotic residues to enter the food chain.”

“Our farmers have proven themselves to be close to 100% compliant around the use of antibiotics, and a result like this shows that the issue has been blown out of all proportion by the veterinary union. As indicated during the piece, the regulator in the North may have some issues to resolve, but this should in no way imply any issue with regulation in the south.”