Saturday 23 April 2016

Antibiotics in food: are we facing a crisis?

Chickens on a  farm. 
Many animals in the UK are given antibiotics in their feed or water to ward off diseases
Chickens on a  farm

Some of the world’s leading fast food, pub and restaurant groups are under pressure to stop serving meat and poultry from animals routinely given antibiotics.

A group of powerful City investors is urging the likes of McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza, Burger King, JD Wetherspoon and the company behind the Harvester, All Bar One and Toby Carvery chains to reduce the use of antibiotics in their supply chains. Experts believe the overuse of these drugs on farms is driving the spread of drug-resistant infections in humans with potentially disastrous results.

Why are big investors so worried?

Growing numbers of consumers are concerned about the links between antibiotics in the food chain and antibiotic resistance in humans. Fifty-four major investment companies that have large food companies in their savings and pension portfolios are worried about the potential damage this issue will cause to their reputations and bottom lines.

Do they have reason to be concerned?

Many experts believe overuse of antibiotics in livestock production is fuelling the problem of antibiotic resistance – where the drugs lose their ability to effectively control microbial growth. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has described the problem as approaching “crisis point” and says the world is moving to a situation where many infections might soon be untreatable. The EU estimates that at least 25,000 people die in Europe each year from an antibiotic-resistant infection.

Antibiotic resistance is a growing concern for health professionals

How widespread is the use of antibiotics on farm animals?

Although farmers in the UK were banned from using antibiotics as growth promoters in the early 1970s, the drugs are routinely given to intensively reared animals in their feed and water to ward off diseases that would otherwise be inevitable in cramped and crowded conditions. Increasingly, farmers are using the same antibiotics used in human medicine – drugs classified by the WHO as “critically important to human health”. According to a report by the UK Alliance To Save Our Antibiotics, 45 per cent of all antibiotics used in the UK and 80 per cent in the US are now given to animals.

Is there a proven link between antibiotic use on farms and the drugs’ resistance in humans?

According to the WHO, the scientific evidence is clear that overuse of antibiotics in livestock production is the most important source of resistant strains of salmonella and campylobacter bacteria, and to a lesser extent E.coli and MRSA. These resistant bugs can pass from animals to humans in a number of ways, mainly through food. For example, people who eat contaminated chicken can risk catching a salmonella bug that may be resistant to antibiotics. Last year, pork sold by several leading British supermarkets was found to be contaminated with a strain of the superbug MRSA.

Resistant bacteria can also be transferred from animals to humans through direct contact, and in the environment. Sometimes these resistant bacteria can colonize in the human gut without causing immediate illness, and then multiply. Pets can also pass on antibiotic resistant bacteria, although this is not believed to be a significant factor.

 E-coli bacteria, viewed under a microscope

What do vets say?

British Veterinary Association (BVA) says the main cause of antibiotic resistance is overuse in human medicine, not in agriculture, where vets are subject to “robust” legislation and controls. “Vets have a sector-wide commitment to the responsible use of antibiotics – indeed, it forms part of the veterinary profession’s code of professional conduct – supported by clear guidance from BVA and other professional associations," says John Blackwell, senior vice president of the BVA.

What’s the solution?

Some campaigners have called for stricter regulation of antibiotics on farms, the phasing-out of their routine preventative use and “antibiotic-free” food labeling to help resolve the resistance problem. However, Emma Rose, from the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, calls for a more far-reaching solution.

"The only way we can stop the over-use of critically important antibiotics on farms, and curb the ever-rising human resistance to these antibiotics, is by moving to better farming systems that are kinder to animals and do not rely on the mass-medication of animals to prevent disease,” she says. “An urgent change in the status quo is needed if we are to avoid a terrifying future in which we could be once again unable to treat life-threatening diseases with antibiotics."

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