Introduction
There is increasing pressure to reduce the use of antibiotics in animal production. This is because of concern that over-use of antibiotics has led to the development of microbial resistance such that their long-term efficacy for treating disease, in both human and veterinary medicine, is being compromised. Antibiotic growth promoters, extensively used in the EU in commercial poultry, were banned in 2006. However, AGPs were never licensed for use in game birds so the focus here has been on reducing the use of prescription antibiotics. 

Over the last year, the use of prescription antibiotics in game feed has fallen by 50%; unsurprisingly this progress has been accompanied by efforts to find alternative products which may help to maintain performance in an antibiotic-free environment but without producing resistant microbial populations. In particular, there has been much interest in the effects of various feed supplements on gut health.
This is the first of a number of short articles which examine this fast-moving area and considers some of the broad principles Sportsman use when evaluating products for possible use in feed.

Legality and Safety
The first question Sportsman ask is whether the use of the product is legal and safe - sometimes new products have been marketed to us which fall at this first hurdle. All products must be registered either as a Feed Additive or as a Feed Material. There must be no concerns over the product’s safety in concentrated or dilute form in relation to operatives working in a premix plant or compound feed mill, or when present in feed used on a game farm. These considerations include carcinogenicity, the possibility of allergic reactions and unacceptable odour. Physical form, handling characteristics and dustiness are all important. 

Efficacy
This is the second area Sportsman evaluate. Put simply, does the product work and ‘do what it says on the tin?’ Sportsman would hope to see data from both well-designed scientific trials which support the proposed mode of action of the product (it bolsters confidence if there is one!) coupled with scaled-up commercial evaluations which demonstrate it works under practical field conditions. An understanding of the effect of variation in dose of the product on performance and associated cost/benefit analysis is valuable.

Quality
A raft of quality measures is considered by Sportsman next. Is the active ingredient known - in some situations this is not the case - and how easy is it to test for both in the commercial product itself and after incorporation in the feed? How consistent is the analysis of the product? Is the active ingredient heat stable and able to adequately survive the conditions of heat and friction it will encounter in the feed manufacturing process? Are there any interactions with any other components of the feed? These areas are of crucial importance. We need to be sure we select products with benefits that can be consistently seen in practice.

Source of Supply
We evaluate the company which makes the product, and the company supplying it, if different, as well as the product itself, pulling together our knowledge as part of the AB Agri family. Are they reputable companies with whom we perhaps already have a trading relationship or perhaps a small-scale start-up with whom we have had no previous experience or track record? Does the supply chain look secure - sometimes we have looked to switch to a new product only for supply to become a problem. All these aspects need to be considered.

Next Steps
Within Sportsman we are continually putting new and existing products through the screening process described above. In general we want a product to:
•    Discourage the development of disadvantageous gut microflora and
•    Encourage the development of beneficial gut microflora so 
•    Improving gut health and structure, and, most importantly to
•    Improve or maintain performance in the absence of an antibiotic

The most promising products may be subjected to further in-house testing by Sportsman in the lab or as part of its R&D programme. The most successful will be incorporated into standard Sportsman feed specifications.

Conclusion
You can  rely on Sportsman to design feeds whose specification and choice of additives will help to maximise performance in the absence of antibiotics.
Further articles in this series will describe some of the types of alternative products on the market together with  their various potential features and benefits.