McDonald’s plans on antibiotics receive qualified welcome

Reuters – Wednesday 4th March
BBC News – Thursday 5th March

News that McDonald’s is to make changes to antibiotic use in chicken production has been given a qualified welcome by Richard Young, SFT’s Policy Director, who commented, “It is good to see that McDonald’s is taking note of its customer’s concerns, but we have our own concerns about this development, which isn’t quite as straightforward or as wonderful as it may appear.”

It has been widely reported that McDonald’s will stop the use of all medically important antibiotics in the chickens they sell in the US within two years. Careful examination of what they have actually said shows that they only mean all routine use. But we don’t quarrel with that providing the critically important antibiotics are avoided, because failure to treat when chickens get ill could cause welfare problems. Instead they will rely on the routine use of a large group of antibiotics known as ionophores, which cannot be used to treat infection in humans or animals because they are too toxic.

As far as we know, it is true that using ionophore antibiotics in chickens does not contribute to antibiotic resistance in human infections, and it is welcome that by their decision McDonald’s is effectively recognising the threat to human health from the development of antibiotic resistance, due to the use of medically important antibiotics in chicken production.

But if the use of these very toxic antibiotics is going to increase, as would appear to be the case, the SFT feels it will need increased monitoring of chicken meat, liver and kidney for residues of these drugs which can be high, if full withdrawal periods are not observed, or if they are accidentally fed at higher rates than intended.

Richard Young added, “This is far from an ideal solution. If rigorous procedures are not in place to monitor ionophore residues in food there is the potential for a threat to human health that has nothing to do with resistance. Ionophores have a strong effect on the heart and circulatory system. No one actually knows how toxic these drugs are to humans because they are too dangerous to be tested on human volunteers, but horses, which died in agony during trials with the drugs many years ago, were found to be 7 times more sensitive to them than rabbits, on which they were initially tested.”

In contrast to the US, McDonald’s have said that in the UK and the rest of the EU, they will only stop using the most important medical antibiotics. While this is a welcome step, the SFT believes it falls far short of what is needed. There are no plans to restrict the routine preventative use of antibiotics and the fact that they are giving themselves 3 years to make any changes is hardly consistent with the urgency that is needed to tackle the growing threat of resistance.

McDonald’s plans will also not extend to broiler breeders, the parent and grandparent birds that lay the eggs which turn into broiler chickens – another of the poultry industry’s dark secrets. These birds are kept in a state of semi-starvation because they have been bred to grow so fast that if given a normal diet they would get too fat to breed, and studies have shown that antibiotic resistance in meat chickens can originate from the use of antibiotics in the breeding flocks.

Richard Young added, “What we really need is a move to systems of production in which chickens are kept more naturally and don’t get ill so often, and so they won’t need to be given antibiotics routinely and ideally not at all.

Food emulsifiers linked to gut bacteria changes and obesity

Food Navigator – Thursday 26th February

A controversial new study links emulsifiers, a common food additive, to obesity, metabolic disorder and inflammatory conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Though the research is contested because the levels of emulsifiers given to lab mice in the study far exceed the much lower levels that humans ingest, it does highlight the complicated relationship between the chemicals in much processed food, the microbiota of the gut and obesity.

The researchers at Georgia State University found that two commonly used emulsifiers affected the  microbes of the gut in ways that increased inflammation and contributed  to metabolic shifts that led to higher food intake and obesity. The lead researcher commented that, “Food interacts intimately with the microbiota, so we considered what modern additions to the food supply might possibly make gut bacteria more pro-inflammatory.”

On the heals of Joanna Blythman’s recently published book on food additives, Swallow This, we should take seriously the subtle and varied impacts of the many chemicals in processed foods on our eating habits and health. As research on the human microbiome expands, its role in maintaining the delicate balance of our health is looking ever more significant. We are only just beginning to realise quite how much impact everything we put in and on our bodies has on our long term wellbeing.

Infected chickens cause ‘growing concern’

BBC News – Thursday 26th February

Three out every four (73%) of ‘shop’ chickens are infected with campylobacter in the UK – that’s a pretty startling statistic. Makes you think a lot more about being very careful when you prepare and cook your chicken for dinner. But worse than how many chickens are infected, is that the bacteria are increasingly becoming resistant to antibiotics, because they are still often added to chicken feed and drinking water, making treatment of resulting human infections more difficult. And it’s not just campylobacter that is becoming more resistant – salmonella food poisoning only needs treating with antibiotics in the small proportion of serious cases, but it is a concern that it too is becoming more difficult to treat because of rising levels of antibiotic resistance.

To combat the presence of campylobacter, the Food Standards Agency is calling for chickens to be treated with lactic acid after slaughter, as a means of decreasing the presence of the bacteria – but is dowsing our food with chemical disinfectants really a good solution? This is a debate we are likely to hear more about in future.

‘Warrior fungus’ could wipe out a quarter of British wheat crop

The Telegraph – Thursday 26th February

A virulent strain of yellow rust that attacks wheat is infecting British crops. The strain has arrived either through air or attached to the clothing of travellers and is adapting to the British climate, potentially causing a significant problem for farmers.

Invasions of new strains of fungi and other diseases are predicted to increase as a result of climate change. The ‘Warrior’ fungus is adapted to warmer temperatures and could take hold in the UK if the right conditions persist. It is particularly aggressive and able to overcome many of the genetic defences of wheat against fungi.

The National Farmers Union has complained that EU pesticide bans have impacted the ability to combat such attacks on crops. SFT Chief Executive, Patrick Holden commented, “This is a classic NFU reaction and a clear sign of what is wrong with current food production systems. Rather than seeking to use banned pesticides, we need to establish and address the fundamental causes of the problem. These will relate in part, at least, to the fact that wheat is now being grown two years in three on many farms and huge areas are being grown as monocultures. Instead of more pesticides, we need more varied rotations, with longer breaks between crops of wheat. In addition, the genetic diversity in crop varieties is shrinking. We need a system which ensures that varieties with similar genetics only ever make up a small percentage of the overall crop.”

Natural superfood: is it time to regulate the sale of breast milk

The Guardian – Monday 2nd March

To be honest, it had never crossed our minds that breast milk would become a food product to be bought and sold, and something in our heart of hearts feels this is fundamentally wrong. It’s one thing to donate breast milk to mothers who can’t breast feed their babies, but something completely different to sell it to bodybuilders as the latest health fad. On the other side of this moral conundrum is that selling breast milk can be a valuable way of supplementing your income whilst on maternity leave, if you have the bounty to produce more than you need. This shouldn’t be passed off-lightly because maternity pay in no way covers the costs of living and assumes there is a a partner about, to add to the household income – but what if you are a single mum stuggling to get by? It’s something to think about.

A company called ‘Only the Breast’ or ‘OTB’ for short has a growing business in the UK, US and beyond bringing together willing women with breast milk to spare and people who for one reason or another want it. It ostensibly allows women who can’t breast feed to buy breast milk at an affordable rate from other  women, but mothers aren’t the only ‘market’ for breast milk. It’s thought to be a health supplement for bodybuilders and some are turning to it as an alternative to cow’s milk – perhaps more natural than soy or almond milk?

Breast milk is, at present, an unregulated market and given that it can carry disease and bacteria and there are no legal specifications for handling or storage, it is a buyer beware situation. What is concerning is the potential for its market to grow into a demand that cannot be met through these informal networks. What happens if it becomes a valuable commodity that everyone clamours for? What women will become its core producers? It’s a disturbing reality to contemplate.

Photograph: Tony Alter

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