01 April 2019- The BBC program Countryfile has set off a debate about the use of ionophores in the UK after it portrayed use of these coccidiostats by the UK poultry industry as problematic and at odds with the sector’s commitment to reduce antibiotic use in a report airing yesterday.

Disputing the idea that continued use of ionophores (which have no application in human medicine) should discredit the gains made by agriculture on antibiotics reduction, the British Poultry Council points out that “Ionophores are animal-only antimicrobials that are not classified as veterinary medicinal products and their usage is not linked to reduction in antibiotics. They are classed as feed additives by the Government’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate.”

Meanwhile, Cóilín Nunan, from Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, calls for ionophores to be made prescription-only and argues for stricter management controls to reduce dependence on coccidiostats to control coccidiosis: “It should no longer be permitted to keep chickens and other birds in conditions that are so cramped and unhygienic that this disease is unavoidable.” The BPC, however, points out that cocciodiosis “is extremely common in all poultry worldwide regardless of the production system, including indoor-reared, free-range, and organic.” The maintenance of a coccidia-free environment is extremely difficult given the organism’s ability to survive treatment by most common disinfectants.

Finally, the report also raised concerns about the toxicity of coccidiostat residue in food products and in manure, in spite of the European Food Safety Agency’s determination that ionophores were “safe to be used as a feed additive with no risk to humans.”

For a number of reasons, including the fact that ionophores have a unique mode of action compared to other antibiotics, it is generally considered unlikely that the use of ionophores might contribute to the development of bacteria resistant to antibiotics important to human medicine. On the contrary, these drugs also have the side benefit of reducing pathogens including Clostridium perfringens, responsible for conditions that might otherwise have required the use of prescribed therapeutic antibiotics to treat.

A BBC spokesperson has commented: “The BBC’s Countryfile programme accurately reflected that ionophore coccidiostats are regularly used by the broiler industry in feed to prevent coccidiosis in poultry. In the film, the British Poultry Council acknowledged that ionophores are antibiotics but stated that they are not classed as such by the EU or UK authorities. The programme accurately reflected campaigners’ concerns that ionophores may increase resistance to other antibiotics and that residues could be left in food and passed into the environment through the spreading of chicken manure as fertilizer.”