Opening of the EU Ministerial Conference on Antimicrobial Resistance

Speech by Minister for Agriculture Martijn van Dam at the opening of the EU Ministerial Conference on Antimicrobial Resistance, Amsterdam, 10 February 2016

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

It’s great to see you here. And it’s very important to have you all here together: most of your delegations are combined delegations from health and agriculture ministries. Minister Schippers and I work together to promote healthy food, but also to promote healthy food production. Both are urgent matters.

Resistant bacteria are one of the greatest threats to public health today. But they aren’t a new threat. As early as 1945, when Sir Alexander Fleming accepted his Nobel Prize for the discovery of penicillin, he warned us about it.

Sir Alexander was afraid that the day might come when penicillin could be bought by anyone in the shops. Ignorant people could then easily underdose themselves, he said. The bacteria wouldn’t be killed, but would fight off the drug and become resistant, rendering the antibiotics ineffective.

After more than seventy years, it’s high time now to act on this knowledge. Because resistant bacteria are spreading among humans. Among livestock too, bacteria are spreading that can be transmitted to humans. So there’s no point in fighting resistance among humans unless we tackle the problem in livestock as well. Health care and livestock farming have to join forces in a One Health approach.

National efforts alone aren’t enough. After all, we can’t stop bacteria at the border. We have to join forces in all of Europe to change the everyday use of antibiotics in livestock farming. We cannot and must not use antibiotics as a cheap way of managing infections. The risks are too great. It’s our task to work with veterinarians and farmers to make sure that they use antibiotics with care, and only when necessary. And it can be done. I’d like to share the Netherlands’ experience with you.

To be honest, we had a long way to go. In 2009, European statistics showed that the Netherlands was one of the countries with the highest veterinary antibiotic use in Europe. But in human health care, we were among the most restrained. These figures were released at a time when political leaders and society were greatly concerned about the risks that livestock production posed for human health. Livestock farmers, veterinarians and politicians all felt that action was urgently needed.

Together we took responsibility for tackling the problem in a public-private partnership. We drew up guidelines for individual farms on reducing the use of antibiotics. Veterinarians and farmers were asked to register their antibiotic prescriptions and use, ensuring both transparency and oversight. This enabled us to call large-scale users to account. The livestock sector also took measures to prevent infections in animals.

So awareness led to action, and action yielded results. Overall, antibiotic usage in Dutch livestock farming has been reduced by 58% since 2009. And the antibiotics that are the most critically important to humans are hardly used at all. Most importantly, this approach led to a significant reduction in the number of resistant bacteria in our livestock population. While farmers maintained their production levels and profit margins.

Ladies and gentlemen,

There is no blueprint for tackling antibiotic resistance. Countries themselves often know best what will work for them. I do hope, however, that sharing our national experiences at this conference will inspire and move us to take action.

In the EU we’re currently negotiating on the Regulations on veterinary medicines and medicated feed. These include measures that will help reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance. With these draft Regulations, the European Commission has taken a big step in the right direction. Several member states would like to include additional measures in the proposals. Today would be a good time to agree on our ambitions.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Seventy years ago, Sir Alexander Fleming called on the world to use antibiotics with care. At the time his audience saw no need to publicise his warning and spur governments to take action. Let’s not make that mistake again today. Let’s convert our aims into action. If we want our children’s generation to profit from Sir Alexander’s discovery, if we want antibiotics to protect their generation from infections, we have to act now and we have to act together. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it even more to our children.

Thank you very much. I look forward to a productive meeting.