The revelation of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in Delhi on Wednesday that we unknowingly ingest a lot of antibiotics along with sumptuous chicken meals is unnerving, but what we don’t realise is that this practice has been going on for years.
The problem is that chicken are recklessly fed the same antibiotics that we use to fight common infections. By consuming these antibiotics through the chicken meat we eat, we naturally develop resistance to the bacteria that they can otherwise fight. But additionally, thanks to indiscriminate use, the bacteria in the chicken that have developed resistance to these antibiotics, can be transferred to us if the meat is not properly cooked. It’s a double whammy.
If we are chicken lovers, perhaps we are already resistant to some or all of the antibiotics that the CSE has found in 70 meat samples from different parts of Delhi and Gurgaon, and chicken meat could have been why we didn’t respond to some medicines we took earlier.
It’s now common knowledge that many of the infections that flouroquinolones (a family of broad spectrum antibiotics that the CSE has found in its study) fought earlier are resistant to the drug.
Globally, the practice has been on for several decades.The US alone, where it’s widespread, 15-17 million pounds of antibiotics are reportedly used in poultry farms every year. However, in Europe and Canada, it’s banned.
Poultry are indiscriminately fed with antibiotics to avoid infections as well as to boost growth by harnessing probiotic action (suppressing bad bacteria and protecting good bacteria in the gut),from the time they come out of the hatchery to the time they are converted into meat. Apparently, small doses of antibiotics make the birds grow three percent more than they would otherwise do.
And controversies have also been common.
In a notable study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (6 February 2002), it was found that people who harboured ciprofloxacin-resistant bacteria (one of the drugs that the CSE has found in their study) had acquired them by eating pork that was contaminated with salmonella. The report also said that salmonella resistant to the antibiotic flouroquine could be spread from swine to humans, and therefore, the use of flouroquinolones (the group of drugs that the CSE found in its study) in food animals needed to be prohibited. An earlier New England Journal of Medicine study had found that 20 percent of ground meat obtained in supermarkets contained salmonella, out of which, 84 percent was resistant to at least one form of antibiotic.
What the CSE had done by disclosing an untold truth with evidence, should be a wake up call for India because of burgeoning chicken consumption. According to an Economic Times report, India’s poultry industry is worth Rs 40,000 crore and it produces 240 crore birds every year. Reportedly, to meet the demand, the industry needs to expand at an annual rate of 12-15 percent. The consumption of chicken is expected to double in the next five years. Even big industrial houses are now engaged in poultry industry.
Think about all the antibiotics that these 240 crore plus birds consume and pass on to us!
The growth of the poultry industry and increasing consumption of chicken also means possible ingestion of more and more antibiotics and drug-resistant bacteria. It is a scary prospect that the government needs to respond at once. The only way to address it is by making testing and supervision stringent because unlike in America, where two antibiotics that were found to be resistant in poultry in 2000 could be pulled out, in India such drugs are freely produced and sold without prescription under various names.
More over, the US Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) stipulates that poultry farmers observe a period of withdrawal. According to FSIS guidelines, “before the bird can be slaughtered, a withdrawal period is required from the time antibiotics are administered. This ensures that no residues are present in the bird's system.” FSIS randomly samples poultry at slaughter and tests for residues. Reportedly, data from this monitoring program have shown a very low percentage of residue violations.
But in India, neither the monitoring service nor the control of the indiscriminate sale of antibiotics seem to work, if at all they are existent. If we are serious about the huge health-bills because of drug resistance, similar programmes have to be introduced soon. Both the organised and unorganised parts of the poultry industry have to be brought under strict safety norms.
Acknowledging the gravity of the phenomenon, the WHO has recommended reduction of “the overuse and misuse of antimicrobials in food animals for the protection of human health." It recommends that prescriptions are required for all antibiotics used to treat sick food animals, and antimicrobials for growth promotion are either phased out or terminated if they are used for human treatment.
Is India listening?