A study commissioned by the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics (ASOA), released on Monday 5th September 2016, found that one in four UK supermarket chicken portions contain antibiotic resistant E. coli. This is four times higher than the levels previously found in a similar study last year. The findings provide yet more evidence that the overuse of antibiotics in intensive livestock production must be addressed to help reduce the growing problem of antibiotic resistant infections.

The testing, carried out by Cambridge University, examined 189 samples of chicken and pork and found ESBL E. coli on 22 of 92 chicken samples from Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Aldi, Waitrose, the Co-Op and Morrisons. The samples included whole chickens, diced breast meat, legs, thighs and drumsticks.

ESBL E. coli is resistant to most antibiotics, including those which hospitals have long used to treat infections that are resistant to the antibiotics available to GPs. The study also found that half (51%) of E. coli from pork and poultry samples were resistant to the antibiotic trimethoprim, used to treat lower urinary tract infections (UTIs) such as cystitis. A further 19% were resistant to the very important antibiotic gentamicin, used to treat more serious upper UTIs such as kidney infections.

SFT policy director, Richard Young said, “These results are truly shocking. The presence of such high levels of gentamicin resistance, in particular, is completely unexpected and unacceptable. Despite gentamicin not being licensed for use in pigs or chickens in the UK, although vets could legally prescribe it under exceptional circumstances, these results suggest that routine use could be occurring. The intensive chicken industry has previously given us assurances that UK chicken producers are not using gentamicin. As such, the SFT will be writing to Defra asking for the source of the problem to be investigated as quickly as possible.”

Professor Mark Holmes who carried out the study said, “I’m concerned that insufficient resources are being put into the surveillance of antibiotic resistance in farm animals and retail meat. We don’t know if these levels are rising or falling in the absence of an effective monitoring system. These results highlight the need for improvements in antibiotic stewardship in veterinary medicine.

There are no official statistics for the number of E. coli urinary tract infections every year in the UK, but a report by the Soil Association estimated there to be between 750,000 and 1.5 million [see page 11 of the report]. E. coli blood poisoning is now killing more than 45,000 people every year in the UK; this is more than twice the number killed by MRSA and Clostridium difficile combined. Blood poisoning often develops when UTIs fail to respond to antibiotics and infection then rapidly spreads to other parts of the body.

It is increasingly recognised that antibiotic resistance could have catastrophic consequences on the ability to treat even simple infections. The former chancellor, George Osborne said in May that, unless tackled, antimicrobial resistance would be a greater danger than cancer by the middle of the century. Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, has also warned of an “apocalyptic scenario” if effective action is not taken to reduce the quantities of antibiotics used in both human and veterinary medicine.

The danger is not just a future threat but a very present one. Every year, more than 5,500 people die from antibiotic resistant superbugs in England. In the European Union, it is estimated that 25,000 die every year from drug resistant bacteria at a cost of more than $1.5 billion in healthcare expenses and productivity losses. Future figures look even more bleak, with global predictions of 3 million deaths from antibiotic resistant E. coli every year by 2050.

However, the major costs to society are associated not so much with the number of people who die from antibiotic resistant infections as with the number who survive, all of whom will require longer stays in hospital, much more expensive treatment and may go back into the community unable to work or even in need of daily care for the rest of their lives. In addition, it is predicted that knee and hip replacement operations, and cancer chemotherapy may no longer be possible, while births by Caesarean section will carry an increased risk of untreatable infections developing for both mothers and babies.

The full causes of the antibiotic resistance problem are very complex. Evidence indicates that doctors often still prescribe them when they are not actually needed. Drug companies have failed to invest in the development of new antibiotics for the last 30 years because it is more profitable for them to provide treatments for chronic conditions where people need to take tablets every day. In addition, it has been discovered that certain disinfectants used on farms, along with some livestock feed additives, can also encourage the spread of resistant bacteria. But it is now beyond doubt that the unhealthy and unnatural conditions on many intensive livestock farms, and the continuing search for increased productivity, encourage farmers to use medically important antibiotics as management tools, rather than solely as life-saving treatments. Until we revise our whole approach to livestock production it is unlikely that the situation will start to improve.

For more information see the Alliance’s press release here.

The Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics was set up by the Soil Association, Compassion in World Farming and Sustain. The Sustainable Food Trust is a member.

Photograph: WFIU Public Radio

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