Antibiotics in food production

What can we do together to decrease the usage of antibiotics in food producing animals and furthermore make others in the business do same? That was the question asked by Åsa Domeij, sustainability manager at Axfood, when she rang Axfoundation in 2013. Domeij’s question was the starting point for making demands on suppliers regarding antibiotic usage. Today, there are antibiotics criteria in place for the whole Swedish food retail industry and Axfoundation has been a key player in this work. Currently, these criteria are being updated.

The search for cheap meat is one of the reasons for antibiotic resistance.

The search for cheap meat is one of the reasons for antibiotic resistance.

The Issue

Over usage of antibiotics is a widespread problem in food production. There is a clear link between sub-standard animal husbandry and an extensive use of antibiotics. The Swedish animal welfare laws are among the best in the world, which means that the animal welfare for Swedish animals is better and the use of antibiotics can thus be kept at a low level. But the problem is worse in several countries both within and outside the EU. Antibiotics are not only used when the animals are ill, but also often as a prevention to manage to keep the animals healthy in a sub-standard environment.

Antibiotic resistance

The more antibiotics are used, the greater the risk for the bacteria to develop resistance, resilience and immunity to antibiotics. The medicine simply no longer has any effect. The result is increased spreading of resistant bacteria, creating a global public health problem. Both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Swedish Institute for Communicable Disease Control regard antibiotic resistance as one of the largest threats to people’s health. The hunt for cheap meat is one of the reasons for antibiotic resistance.

The Solution

Axfoundation has, together with Axfood, Martin & Servera and some of Sweden’s leading experts in antibiotics and animal welfare, developed a comprehensive list of demands that buyers can make regarding antibiotic usage and animal welfare.

All players within the food chain have a responsibility for minimizing the spreading of antibiotic resistance among the food producing animals, since the largest use of antibiotics today is within animal agriculture. Healthy animals and good hygiene are the basis for minimal use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. The risk for outbreaks of diseases, decrease as a result of preventive animal healthcare, comprehensive good animal environment and satisfactory animal feed. This benefits both animal and human health.

The Criteria

  1. Antibiotics must not be used to promote growth.
  2. Antibiotics may only be used on prescription from a veterinarian.
  3. Detailed documentation of all use of antibiotics, including via feed and water. The responsible veterinarian must regularly review and sign the documentation.
  4. If antibiotics are repeatedly used in all animals in a given age category, the reasons for this must be documented, an investigation conducted by a veterinarian and an action program devised and implemented to counteract health problems.
  5. A health plan containing procedures for preventive healthcare and reduced spread of infection must be in place and followed. The plan must focus on strategic preventive animal health work, including infectious disease control, and must as a minimum cover:- The need for quarantine, vaccinations and other measures designed to improve animal health.
    • Infectious disease control procedures for visitors and on introductions to/removals from the herd.
    • Procedures for animal flows and infectious disease control within the herd.
    • Procedures for cleaning and disinfecting sheds/stalls.
    • Procedures for handling recurring health problems in different age groups.
  6. Animals must not be kept in cages.
  7. Animals must not be mutilated.

Our Work

Axfoundation gathers some of Sweden’s leading experts in antibiotics and animal welfare to develop and maintain the criteria for antibiotics. Axfoundation is today spreading these criteria to the Swedish grocery business and food service, national and international organizations, and authorities in order to achieve a transformative change. Axfoundation provides information and gives advice about best practices regarding the threat of antibiotic resistance and possible solutions. We are updating the criteria during 2019-2020 to also – among other things – include seafood.


The antibiotic criteria were developed through an inclusive process during 2013-2014, they were first tested within Axfood and Martin & Servera and then launched widely during 2014. The members of the Swedish Food Retailers Federation – Axfood, Bergendahls, Coop, ICA, Lidl, IKEA Foods and Livsmedelshandlarna – adopted a common policy to decrease the use of antibiotics in food production in 2016. The policy is based on the first criterion on Axfoundation’s list of demands. The Swedish Food Retailers Federation’s members are furthermore aiming to influence their suppliers of other brands to follow these criteria.


was the year when the antibiotic criteria were widely launched in Sweden


companies within retail and food service today use the antibiotic criteria


actors and key experts were involved in developing the criteria

The work that Axfoundation has carried during several years has inspired several other important initiatives to decrease the use of antibiotics.

  • Köttguiden (The Meat Guide): Axfoundation’s antibiotic criteria form the basis for the selection criteria in WWF’s guide for consumers.
  • ReAct: The criteria have inspired the expert organization ReAct, who conducts global advocacy regarding antibiotic resistance. ReAct has developed a toolbox for people and Axfoundation has contributed to a further development of the Toolbox so that it now also includes animal welfare, environment and agriculture. The WHO has endorsed ReAct’s Toolbox, and it is used across the globe by people working to address antibiotic resistance.”ReAct has developed a toolbox for people and Axfoundation’s antibiotic criteria have contributed to a further development of the Toolbox so that it now also includes animal welfare, environment and agriculture. The WHO has adopted ReAct’s Toolbox and is spreading it globally aiming for it to be implemented in national antibiotic strategies.
  • EAT Initiative: Axfoundation has together with EAT Initiative carried out several seminars and talks focused on antibiotic resistance and food within the framework of Stockholm Food Forum.
  • Antibiotics within the EU: Åsa Domeij, sustainability manager at Axfood, the antibiotic expert Christina Greko at the National Veterinary Institute, Örjan Brinkman, chairman of the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), Carolina Sachs Axfoundation’s secretary general at the time, and Mattias Espert, pig farmer and vice chairman of Grisföretagarna (The association of Swedish Pig Farmers) and others were present when the antibiotic issue was raised at a seminar in the European Parliament in September 2016. The seminar was arranged in collaboration with Alde, Alliance for Liberals and Democrats European Group and Fredrik Federley from the Centre Party.

About antibiotics

Penicillin was discovered in 1928 and is considered one of the most important discoveries of the last millennium. It’s used to kill or hamper bacterial growth and antibiotics are vital when used in the right way and in the right place.

The more antibiotics there are in the environment, the bigger the advantage for the antibiotic resistant bacteria. Antibiotics end up in nature when human urine and feces go through the sewage plants and into the water works. Large releases also come from production plants in the developing countries. Antibiotics also end up in nature through animal husbandry. Two thirds of all antibiotics in the world are given to animals in the hunt for cheap meat.

Once the bacteria are resistant, they are transmitted from human to human, from human to animal and from animal to animal.


Projects within Future Food