What exactly are antibiotics?
Antibiotics are molecules naturally synthesised by micro-organisms which attack the bacteria responsible for infections. Penicillin was the first antibiotic to be discovered by Alexander Fleming back in 1928, paving the way for a medical revolution. Their benefits are indeed remarkable, and antibiotics significantly reduced the mortality rates associated with infectious diseases in the 20th century, such as tuberculosis and the plague.
Why do we need to take action?
Antibiotics have become a victim of their success. Their repeated, widespread use on humans and animals is having a backlash: bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to them, annihilating their benefits. This is what is referred to as antibiotic resistance.
The consequences? Partial or total ineffectiveness of last-resort antibiotics. This is a worrying phenomenon which puts doctors and veterinary surgeons in something of an impasse when they are treating their animals and patients: dying from the consequences of a benign infection could once again become commonplace, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
So back in 1992, Carrefour started to ban certain antibiotic growth promoters in animal feeds. In 2012, it became the first retailer to sell a line of products that were guaranteed to have been produced without using antibiotics. Carrefour is now going even further by banning antibiotics at its Carrefour Quality Line farms (during part of the whole of an animal's life) rearing fowls, chickens, pigs, calves, rabbits, salmon and prawns. Certified chickens sold on rotisseries are also reared without antibiotics. Products in these lines can be identified on store shelves by labels featuring the wording "reared without antibiotics".
Is this really so new?
As antibiotic resistance increases, a number of international bodies (World Health Organisation, World Organisation for Animal Health, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation) have already been sounding the alarm for several years, and strict measures governing the use of antibiotics have been put in place.
In 2006, for example, the European Commission prohibited the use of antibiotics as growth promoters as opposed to for curative purposes. However, this practice remains extremely widespread in the US, which systematically uses antibiotics in animal feeds as growth promoters.
In 2011, France's Ministry for Food and Agriculture tackled the problem head on with the launch of its national “Écoantibio” action plan: based on raising professionals' awareness, it sought to reduce the use of veterinary antibiotics by 25% over five years. It has yielded results: between 2011 and 2015, exposure to antibiotics fell by 20%, according to the French agency for food, environmental and occupational health safety (ANSES).
What is the long-term aim?
Carrefour wants to support its partners in their efforts to reduce – or even completely do away with – antibiotics. Doing so is a long and complex undertaking involving many parties – the livestock farmers first and foremost, together with veterinary surgeons and nutritionists. The aim is to roll this initiative out to all Carrefour Quality Lines. This way, new product lines will soon be able to guarantee that they have done away with part of the antibiotics used during the period that the animals in question spend being reared. This is the case with veal and pork, for example.
At the same time, research is under way to further improve animal welfare and living conditions to prevent them from getting ill, and to find natural therapeutic solutions that do not involve antibiotics.