Last December this site reported that Tracy Worcester is drawing attention to the subject of antibiotic resistance, which is growing – developing not in humans, but in bacteria that can then infect humans. Surgical and cancer chemotherapy patients rely on antibiotics to protect them from potentially life-threatening illnesses and declining efficacy could turn routine procedures into life-threatening ones.
The Organic Research Centre now reports that a new study carried out by scientists at Cambridge University, looked at 189 UK-origin pig and poultry meat samples from the seven largest supermarkets in the UK (ASDA, Aldi, Coop, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose). It tested for the presence of E. coli which are resistant to the key antibiotics for treating E. coli urinary-tract and blood-poisoning infections in people. The highly resistant ESBL E. coli was found on meat from all of the supermarkets.
The research found rising levels of resistance in chicken meat, with 24% of samples testing positive for ESBL E. coli, a type of E. coli resistant to the ‘critically important’ modern cephalosporin antibiotics. This is four times higher than was found during a similar study in 2015, in which just 6% of chicken tested positive for ESBL E. coli. Modern cephalosporins are widely used for treating life-threatening E.coli blood poisoning in humans.
51% of the E. coli from pork and poultry samples were resistant to the antibiotic trimethoprim, which is used to treat over half of lower urinary-tract infections. In addition, 19% of the E. coli were resistant to gentamicin, a very important human antibiotic used to treat more serious upper urinary-tract infections.
The findings provide further evidence that the overuse of antibiotics used to mass medicate livestock on British farms is likely to be undermining the treatment of E. coli urinary-tract and blood-poisoning infections in humans. Some of the antibiotics tested are used in far greater quantities in livestock farming than in human medicine.
Dr Mark Holmes, from Cambridge University, who led 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. While some progress has been made we must not be complacent as it may take many years before we see significant reductions in the numbers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in farms.”
E-coli is by far the most common cause of urinary-tract infections and of dangerous blood poisoning, and can also cause meningitis. These infections must be treated with antibiotics. Dr Ron Daniels BEM, CEO of the UK Sepsis Trust said: “This study highlights a worrying trend towards rising resistance in E.coli on UK retail meat. E.coli in people is the greatest cause of deaths from sepsis, and poor antimicrobial stewardship in intensive farming is undoubtedly contributing to this trend. It’s of paramount importance that we act decisively to reduce this immediate threat to human life.”
Tracy points out that we have the choice to buy meat with the high welfare labels RSPCA Assured, Outdoor Bred, Free Range or Organic – eat less meat as Anna advocates – or go meat-free. See the World Health Organisation on the health issues here.
Organic farming is perceived as providing a better quality of life for farmed animals and an earlier article reports that a new financial report on organic farming in England and Wales for 2014/15, undertaken by the Organic Research Centre for the Welsh Government, shows organic farm profits increasing, with organic dairy farming outperforming conventional dairy farming in England and Wales. In particular, the organic dairy industry is now generating higher profits than conventional farms despite producing lower yields.
Animal welfare has been a key motivator to consumers who are increasingly choosing organic products with quality assurance standards, because they want to know the origins of their food, and are willing to pay more for products which are ‘friendly’ to wildlife and the environment.
Professor Nic Lampkin from the Organic Research Centre in Newbury, was one of the co-authors of the report and the Cambridge study was commissioned by the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, of which the Organic Research Centre is a member.