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Resistance and Responsibility: antibiotic use in supermarket supply chains

News | Published  24 November 2021

As Campaign Manager at the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, I’ve been assessing UK supermarket’s antibiotics policies since 2017. Over this time I have seen a shift toward more robust antibiotic policies.

Food Retail

As Campaign Manager at the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, I’ve been assessing UK supermarket’s antibiotics policies since 2017. Over this time I have seen a shift toward more robust antibiotic policies. I’d like to think this is at least partly because of the spotlight the Alliance has been shining on them.

We’ve observed that the level of detail in policies has improved and stronger commitments from retailers have been made regarding responsible farm antibiotics. We see this reflected in the data which shows the UK has, since 2018, reduced its average farm antibiotic use by just over 50%. There is still a way to go, but an increasing number of supermarkets are meeting the asks of Eating Better’s ‘Sourcing Better’ guide, which calls for transparency and targets on antibiotic use, with an aim to achieve very low use of antibiotics in farm animals.


However, when we looked at the scope of supermarket policies in most cases it was quite unclear what they actually applied to. Did the policy apply to all animal products? Just fresh meat? What about ready meals? Brands? Imported meat? Ingredients sourced abroad for a product made in Britain? After months of reading, re-reading and asking the supermarkets questions regarding their policies, the results finally showed that overall the UK supermarket sector needs to do much more to ensure their rules for responsible antibiotic use apply to everything in their stores. As it stands, it’s a mixed picture across the sector with different rules in place in different supermarkets. This means consumers could be buying meat, dairy and eggs produced with irresponsible antibiotic use. 

The key findings of the Alliance supermarket survey are:  

  • All ten leading UK supermarkets now have public farm antibiotic policies that include a ban on most or all of their UK own-brand suppliers from using antibiotics for routine disease prevention.  
  • M&S and Iceland are the only supermarkets that apply their antibiotic policies to all their suppliers of animal-derived foods. 
  • The Co-op, Iceland, M&S, Sainsbury’s, Tesco  and Waitrose policies apply to all their own-brand supply chains, including fresh, frozen, processed and imported produce. 
  • ASDA, Aldi, Lidl and Morrisons have policies that do not clearly cover all their own-brand produce. These policies often cover only UK-sourced own-brand fresh produce, such as raw meat, fresh milk and fresh eggs and do not explicitly include animal-derived ingredients in own-brand ready meals and processed food or imported food.  
  • M&S, Tesco and Waitrose are the only supermarkets to publish comprehensive, up-to-date data on the total antibiotic use in their food supply chains.
  • M&S and Morrisons are the only supermarkets that have banned the use of colistin, a last-resort antibiotic used to treat seriously ill people. Sainsbury’s and Waitrose suppliers also say they have not used colistin in recent years, although no ban is included in their policy. 
  • M&S has the most comprehensive antibiotic policies, followed by Waitrose.

Supermarkets are heading in the right direction in terms of the rules on antibiotic use in their supply chains, but a good policy by itself isn’t enough; it needs to be applied to everything. After all, they make a profit on everything they sell and they have sourced and selected what they stock.

The timing of this report is important, as the UK’s trade negotiators are seeking new trading relationships outside of the EU: the public hasn’t been reassured that responsible antibiotic use is going to be guaranteed as part of any new deal. We could end up importing large volumes of meat or dairy from countries where average farm antibiotic use is far too high. We’ve been used to importing most of our food from the EU, where new regulations will (hopefully) be curbing excessive antibiotic use from next year. If we’re moving increasingly away from EU imports and looking for meat from further away, the impetus for ensuring responsible antibiotic use is falling to the supermarkets.

Download the full ‘Resistance and Responsibility’ supermarket policy report here