A campaign urging leading US and UK food service firms to press for lower antibiotic levels in the livestock-derived ingredients they use is not from the usual NGO sources. Instead, it is the initiative of a group of ‘blue chip’ investment funds concerned at the latest World Health Organisation (WHO) advice. But a livestock industry group warns that any changes must be practicable and agreed by the whole food chain, not imposed from the top.
In March, the Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR) wrote to ten major food supply businesses, including McDonalds, JD Wetherspoon, Mitchells & Butlers and Domino’s Pizza Group, inviting them to commit to removing antibiotics with a role in human health from their supply chains within a fixed timescale.
The FAIRR initiative was established by Jeremy Coller, founder and chief investment officer of the London-based equity fund Coller Capital, which also has offices in New York and Hong Kong. The FAIRR Network includes at least 20 investment vehicles, including Aviva Investors, The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and Triodos Investment Management. The network claims collectively to represent over $1 trillion in managed assets.
The coalition says the approach to food service businesses follows WHO advice that the overuse of antibiotics means that resistance to these medicines risks making many infections untreatable. As 80% of the antibiotics made in the US are used in livestock production, FAIRR says that failure to act on the irresponsible use of these medicines is a threat to both human health and investor returns.
“These large food companies are key ingredients in the portfolios of most of our pensions and savings, says Mr Coller. “Therefore it is a case of proper risk-management to ask them to work out how they will meet this challenge.
“The world is changing, regulation on antibiotic use is set to tighten and consumer preferences are shifting away from factory farmed food. As stewards of these food companies and responsible investors, we want to protect both human health and shareholder value.”
Mr Coller is concerned about a “knowledge gap” between investors and material investment risks and opportunities connected with intensive livestock farming. He says that responsible investment should take account of environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors at all stages of the investment process. “Our policy therefore covers a broad range of ESG issues – from climate change to labour rights to farm animal welfare – and is implemented across our whole investment process, not just the investment decision phase.”
A spokesman for the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA), the cross industry grouping, pointed out that the UK and EU are already ahead of the US in this field.
“We recognise concerns about growing resistance to antibiotics, but in humans, resistance is largely attributed to human medical use, with a recent study confirming farm animal use could be responsible for as few as one in every 370 clinical cases,” while noting that resistance is a threat in animals too.
“While a reported 70% of antibiotics in the US might be used to tackle disease challenges in farm animals, it’s only 40% in the UK. Public Health England figures show the medical use of antibiotics is actually 2.4 times that of veterinary when corrected for number and weight of animals and people. Furthermore, use of antibiotics as growth promoters has been banned in the EU since 2006; antibiotics are only available in the UK on prescription from vets; and the industry has already opted for restrictions to use a number of antibiotics classed as critically important for human health.
“RUMA welcomes the concept that food companies work sustainably with their supply chains to reduce the need for antibiotic use in farm animals - this is already happening. However, it’s critical that potential impacts on welfare, food safety, product quality and investment are fully understood by the businesses involved, so that farmers have the confidence, means and support to make any necessary changes.
“It is equally important this issue does not end up being exploited as a marketing tool. There is a risk that misrepresentation of facts and a failure to appreciate the situation in different countries could end up harming welfare, cause unnecessary suffering and lead to significant losses in our farm livestock sector.”