UK poultry industry defends stance on antibiotic use

The British poultry industry has hit back at criticism following a recent report on the use of antibiotics in the sector.

According to the report, published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, a staggering number of deaths in Europe are caused because of antibiotic resistance, leading to the development of superbugs, stemming from intense food animal production.

The study uses data from the Netherlands to show that more than half (56%) of antibiotic-resistant E.coli genes in human blood poisoning cases were the same as the genes in retail chicken samples. It said that approximately 280 people in the UK were dying every year from blood infections, caused by an antibiotic-resistant E.coli superbug, from chicken meat.

Around 1,580 cases of ESBL E.coli blood poisoning occur in the UK every year, which are serious infections that cannot be treated with the antibiotics ‘modern cephalosporins’, because something similar is used on farms.

Strict controls

A spokesperson for the British Poultry Council (BPC) and the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) Alliance defended the poultry sector and said consumers in Britain could be assured chickens here were reared according to “the strict production standards of the Red Tractor assurance scheme”.

“These standards include rigorous controls of the use of medicine under veterinary supervision. All medicines on-farm should be used as little as possible and only as much as necessary,” the spokesperson said.

However, the Soil Association argued that a particular strain of E.coli, known as extended spectrum beta lactamase (ESBL), had become an increasing problem on farms and in human medicines over the last 10 years. “The resistance is caused by modern antibiotics known as third- and fourth-generation cephalosporins. These are used in both farming and in hospitals, making it difficult to work out how much of the problem arises from each sector,” it said.

Worldwide action

Scientists from the report said: “The number of avoidable deaths and the costs of healthcare potentially caused by third-generation cephalosporin use in food animals is staggering.” They recommend worldwide action to limit the use of such antibiotics in all food animals.
Yet the BPC and RUMA said: “The British poultry meat industry has voluntarily stopped the use of certain categories of antibiotics [in 2012] in the breeding pyramid, which are considered to be critically important to human medicine, such as cephalosporins. In the UK, cephalosporins are not and have never been used in flocks used for chicken meat production.”

Meanwhile, Soil Association policy adviser Richard Young highlighted that the study was the first detailed estimate on the human health consequences from the use of antibiotics in European agriculture. “This study relates to just one type of antibiotic and one bug in one type of animal – broiler chickens. However, the same type of antibiotics are also used in pig production and dairy farming, and the farm use of several other antibiotics also needs to be addressed because it gives rise to similar concerns.”