Alliance E.coli study: farming industry responds

Industry responses to the discovery of antibiotic resistant E.coli on supermarket meat

The Alliance to Save our Antibiotics’ study - which found antibiotic resistant E.coli on UK-origin pig and poultry meat from the seven largest UK supermarkets - was published on Monday 5th September. The study prompted several responses from representatives of the food, farming and retail industries. While many responses recognised the significance of the findings, a number were, unfortunately, inaccurate or incorrect:

The National Pig Association claimed that ‘the provenance of the tested pigmeat was not revealed, meaning that it could not be British.

In fact, the provenance was revealed, all the meat tested was of UK-origin. The NPA subsequently corrected this assertion.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) claimed that ‘Mass treatment of animals is not legally permitted.

Mass medication, in fact, is legal within the EU. The BRC subsequently admitted their error, stating: “As the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics correctly points out, under current EU legislation the mass treatment of animals with antibiotics is permitted.

The National Farmers Union claimed that there was ‘no detail on many aspects, including the country of origin of the samples’.

This was incorrect; all the samples were clearly stated to be British meat.

The industry body, Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA) said that ‘farming could be responsible for as few as one in every 370 clinical cases of antibiotic resistance in humans’

This statistic - often cited by RUMA - is taken from a Swedish report (p29). As antibiotic use in Sweden in farm animals is exceptionally low, we would indeed expect to see far less overlap between human and farm animal resistance than elsewhere.

This statistic ignores the fact that resistance plasmids can transfer from farm-animal E. coli to human E. coli in the human gut, and therefore even if the E. coli causing the infection is not of farm-animal origin, the resistance often will be.

Thirdly, the statistic only refers to ESBL E coli. There are many other types of resistance in E. coli where there is greater overlap - as the Alliance’s study demonstrates.

RUMA claimed that ‘Good kitchen hygiene, washing hands after handling raw meat and thorough cooking of meat will almost completely prevent the transmission of antimicrobial resistance from meat to man ’.

The significance of the findings was in the revelation that high levels of resistant E.coli are present in the national pig and poultry herd/flock. These resistant bugs can pass to humans through a number of means; via the environment, water, direct contact with animals, or through the meat we eat. This response skates over the real problem (the prevalence of antibiotic resistant bugs on farms) and misguidedly places the burden of responsibility on the shoulders of consumers.

The BRC claimed that they and RUMA do ‘not support metaphylaxis’ (preventative treatment of groups of animals in the absence of any disease)

In fact, RUMA refuses to rule out treating groups of animals with antibiotics when no disease has been diagnosed in any animal within the group. Mass medication of animals (particularly pigs and poultry) currently accounts for +85% total UK veterinary antibiotic use.

The British Veterinary Association, British Veterinary Poultry Association and Pig Veterinary Society, speaking jointly, said: ‘The veterinary profession recognises that AMR is a global problem for both humans and animals, so is working hard with companion animal owners, livestock farmers and other species stakeholders to promote the responsible use of antibiotics.

Antimicrobials are crucial for the maintenance of animal health and welfare, and there are many innovative and important developments happening in the poultry, pig and other sectors to promote good practice for antibiotic use in animals, and to explore alternative measures. It is essential that we learn from and share this best practice across the UK and beyond.

We need to foster increased collaboration between health sectors with the veterinary profession committed to playing its part, to ensure positive steps are taken to preserve these essential drugs for future generations.’

The Alliance welcomes this statement.

The British Poultry Council said: ‘Our priority remains the health of our birds and the responsible therapeutic use of antibiotics, but we also need to explore further into the science of the issue. Using fewer antibiotics will put less pressure on bacteria in the poultry production chain to select for resistance, and we will see that resistance drop.’

The Alliance welcomes this statement.

The FSA said: ‘We aim to reduce the use of antimicrobials in food production animals. An important part of that will be work with food manufacturers, assurance schemes and retailers to develop standards for the responsible use of antibiotics in poultry, pig and dairy sectors.’

The Alliance welcomes this statement.