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Food and the Problem of Antibiotic Resistance

The British Medical Association has warned that antibiotic resistance is "one of the major public health threats that will be faced in the 21st century," while the World Health Organization has called for a reduction in the use of antibiotics in agriculture.
Considering the growing problem of increasing antibiotic resistance in pathogenic bacteria, animal farming may be a much larger contributor to the problem than over-prescription of human antibiotics by doctors.

While the use of antibiotics is severely restricted in organic farming, they're used extensively in non-organic farming to promote growth and to prevent disease from decimating intensively reared, overcrowded, stressed farm animals. As much as 60% of all the antibiotics used in South Africa are given to farm animals, not people.

The use of Antibiotics in Food-Producing Animals

In the past, certain antibiotic molecules were manufactured and used solely for veterinary purposes in order to prevent antibiotic resistance from developing in humans. However, new antibiotics are not being developed as rapidly as in previous decades creating a legitimate concern that "super bugs" may develop resistance to all known forms of antibiotics. The result could be devastating to human health.
Certain drugs stay in the meat and/or milk of food animals for extended periods of time. The risk is that drug residues in meat or milk destined for human consumption will result in our developing resistance to medications. Every single antibiotic which is used for food producing animals carries a ‘withdrawal period”. This refers to the amount of time required after the treatment before the animal is allowed to be milked or slaughtered and the product used for human consumption. Withdrawal times can range from a couple of days to a couple of weeks depending on the type of antibiotic used.
Penicillin has the longest milk and meat withdrawal periods to ensure that no traces of it are found in the end product. This is because penicillin is still the most common cause of severe allergic drug reactions in humans and this withdrawal period is a precaution to prevent accidental ingestion by someone with severe penicillin allergies.

South Africa does not have a regulated process of antibiotic-residue testing in meat. Testing the carcasses for antibiotic residues in the abattoir happens randomly (if at all) leaving the door wide-open for antibiotic abuse. In-feed hormones are common place in the feedlot systems as are antibiotics.
There are different methods of administering antibiotics, depending on the nature of the problem. The following are the more common ways in which the animals are treated:
• Intra-mammary preparations that are inserted directly into the udder of milk-producing animals. The antibiotic/s in these products do not spread throughout the animal’s system but stay in the udder to treat localised infections.
• Injectable antibiotics are used to treat more generalised infections and are spread throughout the animal’s body via the blood and lymphatic system.
• In-feed antibiotics which are fed mainly in winter at sub-clinical (below treatment) levels as a preventative measure against Bovine Respiratory Disease, which is the most common affliction amongst feedlot cattle. The active ingredients in these preparations also spread throughout the body.
• Intra-uterine pessaries which are inserted into the animal’s vagina to treat and prevent localised infections in the womb. The activity of this product is primarily contained in these areas.
• Topical preparations such as creams, salves and sprays which are applied to the skin. There is minimal absorption into the blood stream.

The Deal in South Africa

A disturbing fact is that one of the more common in-feed antibiotics used in feedlots is registered for use only in swine and poultry in South Africa, which means that there are no clinical trials available to recommend dosages or withdrawal periods in cattle. Apart from being illegal, this practice could possibly be generating great harm by creating resistance to that specific class of antibiotics. This is a multi-million Rand industry and the only one who is profiting from this unscrupulous practice are the pharmaceutical companies and the producers.
Adherence to the withdrawal period does not guarantee that there are no antibiotic residues present in the meat – it simply means that the amount of residue that remains in the animal’s body is not regarded as harmful by the relevant governing bodies. The risk to people who consume meat that is produced in commercial feedlots is that over time, through continued consumption of meat products containing these antibiotic traces, our body’s start to develop resistance to that antibiotic molecule.
Hence the reason that you are expected to finish a course of antibiotics prescribed to you by a doctor. The clinical trials conducted on that specific product shows how long those bacteria need to be exposed to that active molecule in order for them to be destroyed. By not completing the recommended course, you are potentially creating resistance to that specific strain of bacteria which might then make it necessary for you to take another course of a different class of antibiotics. This is how the ‘superbugs’ originated in hospitals. The incidence of Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA in South African hospitals is a reality and in 2005 Dr Charles Lautenbach, an orthopaedic surgeon with expertise in flushing out superbugs from wounds, saw an estimated 20 MRSA infections every month. Statistics could not be found to verify what these numbers are currently, but one can assume that these numbers have increased over the years.

Is Milk Safe?

The testing of raw milk is more regulated than that of meat. Most dairy producers take a sample from the milk tanker when they receive it from the farmer. The tests are very sensitive to penicillin so most farmers are very cautious about using penicillin-based antibiotics as they will not get paid for their produce if it is found to test positive.
This does not however prevent some unscrupulous farmers from finding loop-holes. Even if a batch of milk has to be withheld from the main tanker, some farmer’s will feed that contaminated milk to the calves. The other challenge is that in South Africa only the milk in the tanker get’s tested – not the milk from the individual cow. This means that the farmer can still mix in the antibiotic-tainted milk with all the ‘clean’ milk and the tests will be negative. Another problem is the use of a class of antibiotics know as ‘tetracyclines’ in dairy cattle. Not only are these products easily obtainable from co-operatives, they are cost effective and have a broad spectrum of activity. The tests used to detect antibiotic residues are unlikely to test positive for them because the levels that they are allowed in the milk are a lot more lenient than those of the penicillin group. The question then begs – what are the consequences of long-term, cumulative exposure to these residues? Could they be responsible for weakening our immune systems which in turn result in the development of non-specific allergies, candida overgrowths, digestive disturbances etc?

Beef or Chicken?

The poultry industry provides an approximate 61% of the protein consumed in South Africa with approximately 17 million broilers (a type of chicken specifically bred for meat consumption) being produced in a week. This roughly translates to an estimated 930 000 tons of meat consumed in a year*!
How safe is the meat from the chickens that we consume? Chickens are probably one of the more difficult livestock to keep disease free. All intensive farming systems are risky – having all those animals in such confined and artificial conditions is just not natural, no matter how ‘humane’ the operation is. When disease breaks out, it is nothing short of a catastrophe, especially amongst chickens. Being in such close proximity to one another the disease spreads faster than it can be controlled and even if not all the animals succumb to the disease, many of the animals will then be culled as a precautionary measure costing the industry millions of Rands.

Zoonotic diseases (diseases transmitted between animals and humans) such as Avian Influenza (bird flu) pose the greatest risk and as a result the chickens need to be reared in very controlled conditions to prevent outbreaks from occurring. This cannot be done without the extensive use of vaccinations and antibiotics. Chicks used for food production receive their very first vaccinations on their first day of life and this practice continues until that chicken is eventually slaughtered.
Apart from the vaccinations, chickens also get fed in-feed antibiotics for the same reason that cattle do - for prophylactic purposes to keep diseases at bay, however this is not an occasional practice but is status quo at some of the bigger, well-known chicken farms.

The broiler chickens that are used for meat production get slaughtered at approximately 40 days of age (unlike beef cattle that get slaughtered between 8 -18 months). This means that the chicken is being pumped full of vaccines, antibiotics and in some cases hormones which can never be fully broken down and excreted from its body before it is slaughtered, resulting in very concentrated by-products and residues in chicken meat.
Consider the fact that a chicken reared naturally on a farm takes 70 - 80 days to reach full slaughter weight and the one’s that are commercially produced take 40 days - one has to ask why the chickens grow so fast in hatcheries (taking into full consideration that the broilers are genetically engineered for fast growth rates and high food conversion ratios). Seems a bit implausible, doesn’t it?

Don’t be fooled by the “free-range” label. Marketers want you to think of happy little chickens basking in the sun, scratching in the dirt for juicy worms. Not all free range facilities are built with the chicken’s well-being in mind. All too often the only difference is an extra metre that extends to the outdoors which is concreted and in full sun, certainly no incentive for a chicken to want to go outside! Even if they do have limited access to a more natural environment, as long as they are raised in intensive systems there is no way that they can run around freely without being vaccinated and fed antibiotics, it just does not happen, period.

Our Role as Consumers

In all fairness, it is unrealistic and naive to believe that no medication should ever be used in food-producing animals, as long as intensive practices exist – so will disease and drugs. The good news is that better animal welfare standards in organic farming minimize the need for antibiotics and other veterinary drugs—they are used only when strictly necessary.
The question that we need to ask as consumers is when is stricter legislation going to be enforced in South Africa regarding the accessibility of antibiotics for livestock use. Without a prescription, you cannot purchase antibiotics from your pharmacy, yet a farmer can buy antibiotics from his local co-operative without being questioned. As long as this is allowed to continue, we can NOT trust the food that we eat.

It is time for us as consumers to stop being victims and to start taking a more active role in the most important aspect of our wellness – nutrition. If we do not demand more transparency and information from our producer’s and suppliers then we must accept sub-standard food without complaint. Traceability of products will become more common-place over the next few years meaning that the produce you buy will include all the details of its source of origin. This process is common-place in many European countries but has been slow in its implementation in South Africa. At this point, this practice is not required by law, but I would much rather support a producer who is willing to put his name to his product than those who don’t.

Organic foods are a simple way to reduce an individual's toxin burden of pesticides and food additives, increase their nutrient intake, and perhaps alter their consumption patterns away from less healthy choices. Many people complain about the premium prices associated with organic produce but from a pure economics point of view, the higher the demand the better the economies of scale are likely to be for the producer which should make it less expensive. We do however need to achieve critical mass for that to happen so it is up to you to make that change. And yes the reality is that it is more expensive to grow things naturally as more time and effort is needed to make that product more acceptable for human consumption without the use of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and artificial conditions.

Organic food isn't a luxury - it is how food is supposed to be, and a valuable part of any regimen intended to maintain, improve, or restore health!

 *Information courtesy of SA Poultry

Article written by Laura McDermid

Laura is a qualified Veterinary Technologist and spent many years working in the veterinary industry. Her last corporate job was as marketing manager for Intensive Food Producing Animals at a global pharmacuetical giant. She spent a large part of her time dealing with feedlots, piggeries, dairy producers and hatcheries, hence her knowledge of and insight into the way these systems operate. Views expressed in the above article are from Laura's own experience.