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Updates in animal science

14 May 2019, at 9:30am

The latest developments were discussed at the British Society of Animal Science’s annual conference

The British Society of Animal Science (BSAS) celebrated its 75th birthday at its annual conference in Edinburgh in April 2019. Adopting the theme of “Fit for the future”, the conference addressed pressing current issues in animal science and management as well as those problems that we know are going to be of global concern in the coming years.

Are things moving in the right direction

On the opening day of the main conference, Sheila Voas, Chief Scientific Officer for Scotland, described how policy based on public opinion can be at odds with the evidence base, citing the example of a lack of hard evidence of welfare problems of wild animals in circuses.

Sheila argued that policy makers don’t always understand the evidence presented to them or may interpret it differently than a scientist would, as can be seen with the badger debate. Colin Wittemore, a stalwart of BSAS, gave a barnstorming lecture, asserting that research is no longer seen and funded as a public good – as it was in the post-war period. Research has become commercialised, fostering an environment in which pioneering achievements and inventiveness to meet necessity are unlikely.

Animal science, Colin insisted, should be done in the animal shed and not done by analysing and re-analysing data until the right result is achieved, and that teachers should share with their students what they have done, not what they have been taught.

An interesting debate ensued about scientists’ reliance on statistics, and whether data should form definitive answers or be part of our armoury but not the whole toolkit. Concerning research, Calum Murray of Innovate UK made the interesting point that innovation loans are an alternative to grants, with vets and scientists encouraged to apply for them.

An update on livestock and antimicrobial resistance

In the scientific lectures, Mark Young from the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock described University of Belfast research in using plasma (ionised gas) to clean wounds and disinfect surfaces and food products, creating a clean environment and with implications for better antimicrobial practice. Dave Ross from the Agri-EPI Centre talked about the advent of 5G in agriculture and how it could allow images and information to be collected in real time and collated directly into the cloud, bypassing the need for PC data collection. Data collected from satellites on individual animals, early disease detection and animal behaviour measured in real time from collar-mounted monitors look like key developments in the near future. HandsFree Hectare, Silent Herdsman and Terahertz imaging are examples of products and projects running that utilise 5G and new technologies.

AMR was a constant theme of the conference. Trevor Alexander from Agriculture and Agri-food Canada presented his study comparing antimicrobial activity in conventional and natural (antibiotic-free) feedlots, finding much higher resistance in the conventional environment. Addressing the issue of North America’s much higher use of antibiotics in animals and use as metaphylaxis, Trevor said that the Canadian Government is investing heavily in alternatives and for the moment better management practices are the best solution.

Philip Howard from Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust presented the One Health element of AMR. Usage drives resistance, he urged. And usage globally is set to double in the next 10 years. In the UK, the breakdown of antibiotics used in human medicine shows: 72 percent in general practice, 12 percent in hospitals, 7 percent in outpatients, 5 percent in dentistry and 4 percent in other areas. One in three people are using a course of antibiotics at least once per year and approximately 20 percent of antibiotic courses are based on inappropriate prescribing without documented evidence of a bacterial infection.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control is concerned about usage in Greece and Italy, suggesting it may become unsafe to perform major surgery and transplants in those countries due to the risk of subsequent infection. NICE’s aim is to be in control of the AMR situation by 2040, based on a programme of public and medical information, better use of diagnostics and vaccine use.

Addressing the problems manufacturers face in promoting products to vets and the public, Kate Hore, Senior Nutritionist at Greencoat, gave an interesting industry perspective of the problems faced with complying with regulations. Words used in advertising supplements must be chosen carefully to adhere to good labelling practice, and results of clinical trials cannot be promoted unless the product is a licensed medicine.

Specific claims must be avoided and more vague terms such as “supports” employed. This means that products presented to vets may well have a wealth of clinically proven evidence behind them but manufacturers are prevented from promoting this to vets.

However, there are companies, enabled by the internet, that do not comply with the guidelines that actively promote products using terms compliant companies do not, creating a risk that consumers will purchase these products over supplements from responsible companies.