In the spotlight

Healthy animals without antibiotics

Thus use of antibiotics in livestock farming is continuing to decrease. This was indicated in the 2016 figures that were presented on 29 June. Antibiotic resistance is also decreasing. This is good news for our health. But what is causing this reduction in the use of antibiotics? And how are animals staying healthy?


Veterinarian and microbiologist Dik Mevius is a scientist at Wageningen Bioveterinary Research and has been involved in driving back antibiotic resistance for many years. There was no other possible outcome than a reduction in the use of antibiotics, he explains. ‘There was a significant overuse of antibiotics in livestock farming. Vets and farmers were using it systematically, as it was cheaper than taking other measures. Animals were even given preventative antibiotics that were used as a last resort for humans. Only when the negative effects such as increasing antibiotic resistance became clear, were steps taken.’


In 2008, government affirmed its commitment to reducing the use of antibiotics in livestock farming. At that time, Mevius was one of the scientists that advised government on how to approach this issue. The government set goals for reduction and the sector formulated its own bottom-up plans to significantly reduce the use of antibiotics. For each sector, covenants for a package of measures were established by stakeholders that had to result in responsible use. ‘Farmers implemented these measures themselves, as they were becoming aware of the problems of antibiotic resistance,’ explains Mevius. ‘That some of them were carriers of resistant bacteria undoubtedly made a contribution to this willingness. Add to this the social pressure that was caused by Q fever, avian influenza and MRSA.’

The Netherlands Veterinary Medicines Institute

The founding of the The Netherlands Veterinary Medicines Institute (SDa), also contributed to this success. This institute created a comprehensive overview of the use of antibiotics in livestock farming and established goals, also known as benchmark indicators. ‘If you want to ensure that the process is transparent, you need an independent party,’ confirms Mevius. The SDa was funded by all stakeholders.

By using a traffic light model (green, orange, red) the SDa created an overview of which farmers used little antibiotics, which used many and which farmers used far too much. ‘Those farmers that used little antibiotics became our ambassadors.’ Those who systematically used to much weren't fined, but would receive a visit from an advisor to discuss how they could do things differently.

Preventing use

At the same time, livestock farmers, management consultants and vets would come together in groups to come up with new measures that could prevent the use of antibiotics. They were supported in their efforts by researchers from Wageningen University & Research. This included measures such as better hygiene, different shed concepts, adjustments to feed or water quality and preventing stress. That process was very important too, according to Mevius. ‘You need to dare to change.’ In 2012, The Dutch Feed Industry Association (NEVEDI) made the decision to stop producing livestock feed in which medications were processed. This was also a massive step in the right direction.

Yet, it is not the case that animals should never be given antibiotics. ‘But it should never be administered preventatively to prevent infections and should be restricted to individual animals,’ states Mevius. But what is important is that animals are never given human last-resort antibiotics. This type of use has also been reduced to an absolute minimum.

Consumers want it

Researchers from Wageningen University & Research are working with the sector to investigate the factors that result in animals still being given antibiotics. Where can we find opportunities to further reduce the use of medications? ‘In making adjustments in feed, shelter, chains and business practices,’ summarises Mevius. He believes that this decrease will continue. ‘The farmers want it, and consumers want it. This is discernible through initiatives such as meat with the Beter Leven (Better Life Foundation) quality mark and different types of chickens that are coming onto the market. I assume that this decrease will continue.’


Succinctly put, a significant turn-around in the way people think has occurred. Healthy livestock farming is now the starting point: how do you ensure that your animals grow up healthy and won't require any treatment? Vaccinations can make a valuable contribution to this.