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More E. coli Superbugs in Poultry Meat

More E. coli Superbugs in Poultry Meat

A new study by Public Health England and Defra scientists has revealed nearly two thirds of retail chicken meat in Britain is contaminated by highly antibiotic-resistant ESBL E. coli [1]. The shock findings are the highest level of contamination yet found, and come despite a new report from the government’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate showing that the poultry industry has been reducing its antibiotic use in the last two years.

ESBL E. coli are resistant to the ‘critically important’ modern cephalosporin antibiotics – we need these antibiotics to protect human health. Our recent Supermarket Superbugs campaign and research published in September by the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics revealed one quarter of supermarket retail chicken was contaminated by ESBL E. coli back in September.  Around 90% of all UK veterinary antibiotic use is for mass medication of groups of animals (mostly of pigs and poultry), many of which are reared through intensive farming.

This shocking overuse of antibiotics in farming is undermining their effectiveness in human medicine too.  In Britain alone an estimated 10,000 people die each year from antibiotic resistant illnesses, and experts fear these diseases could cause one million deaths across Europe by 2025.

The Soil Association is a founding partner of the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics – we’ve been campaigning to stop the overuse of antibiotics in farming for over 20 years.

Cóilín Nunan, scientific adviser for the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, said: “The reason there has been such a large increase in ESBL resistance since 2008 is that for years the poultry industry was systematically injecting day-old chicks in breeding flocks with modern cephalosporins, despite these drugs being classified as critically important antibiotics in human medicine. This practice was in breach of an EU Directive, but although we alerted the government in 2006, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate refused to take any action. The poultry industry says it has voluntarily stopped the practice in recent years, but incredibly the VMD still refuses to implement a clear ban on using these antibiotics in poultry. Unfortunately, we are still seeing the effects of the VMD’s inaction with ESBL E. coli remaining widespread in retail chicken.”

New data published today by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate shows that there was a 9% fall in the sales of veterinary antibiotics in 2015 compared with 2014. Despite the reductions, total use per livestock unit in pigs and poultry remains between 3 and 4.3 times higher than in Denmark and the Netherlands.

Cóilín Nunan continued: “These reductions in farm antibiotic use are very welcome, but progress remains far too slow. Since 2006, when growth promoters were banned, there has only been a 4% fall in total antibiotic use. The use of critically important antibiotics also remains close to record levels. Pigs remain by far the highest overall consumers of antibiotics in British farming, and we estimate that use in British pigs is still about five times higher per animal than it is in Denmark and the Netherlands.”

The study by Defra and PHE scientists also found ESBL E. coli on 1.9% of retail beef and on 2.5% of retail pork. In their study, the scientists said that cooking the meat would kill any bacteria but nevertheless warned that: “However, our data clearly indicate that raw chicken is, at the present time, the most significant known food source of ESBL-producing E. coli to which the UK population is regularly exposed”.

The samples were bought from five different leading supermarkets, from discount and convenience stores and from butchers. In total, 88% of the meat samples were labelled of UK origin.

We are campaigning to end the use of antibiotics but we need to move quickly to gather data on antibiotic use on organic farms so that we can use the results to lobby and campaign for better animal welfare standards and reduced antibiotic use. Find out how you can get involved.

The Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics is an alliance of health, medical, environmental and animal welfare groups working to stop the overuse of antibiotics in animal farming. It was founded by Compassion in World Farming, the Soil Association and Sustain in 2009, and is supported by the Jeremy Coller Foundation. Its vision is a world in which human and animal health and wellbeing are protected by food and farming systems that do not rely routinely on antibiotics and related drugs.