Time for ac­tion

It is pos­si­ble to pro­duce an­tibi­otics-free chicken, says Chan­dra Bhushan

Down to Earth - - COVER STORY -

THE WORLD is strug­gling to deal with an­tibi­otic re­sis­tance em­a­nat­ing from the large-scale use of an­tibi­otics in an­i­mals. This is largely be­cause the reg­u­la­tory mech­a­nisms put in place by most coun­tries (in­clud­ing the agency that sets global food stan­dard, Codex Ali­men­ta­r­ius Com­mis­sion) are not de­signed to con­trol an­tibi­otic re­sis­tance; they are de­signed to re­duce the level of an­tibi­otics in food prod­ucts. How­ever, there is a ten­u­ous link between an­tibi­otics in food and an­tibi­otics re­sis­tance in bac­te­ria be­cause of an­tibi­otics overuse in an­i­mals.

The cur­rent reg­u­la­tions on an­tibi­otics in food are based on the con­cept of Max­i­mum Residue Lim­its (mrls), or the max­i­mum amount of chem­i­cal per­mis­si­ble in a food item. It is based on the tox­i­c­ity of the chem­i­cal—the more toxic is a chem­i­cal, the lower residues are al­lowed.But many times, mrls are based on how much residue can be prac­ti­cally re­duced in food item based on good prac­tices.In most cases, it is a com­pro­mise between tox­i­c­ity (health) and agri­cul­tural prac­tices, in­clud­ing in­dus­try in­ter­ests (wealth).

Take the case of Codex stan­dards for oxyte­tra­cy­cline an­tibi­otic in chicken.The mrl is 200 μg/kg for chicken mus­cle; 600 μg/kg for liver; and 1,200 μg/kg for kid­ney.The stan­dards for liver and kid­ney are higher than for mus­cles be­cause an­tibi­otics are more likely to per­sist in liver and kid­ney than in mus­cles. There is also a tox­i­c­ity an­gle to th­ese dif­fer­ent stan­dards. Since peo­ple eat more chicken mus­cle than liver or kid­ney, even a higher stan­dard for liver or kid­ney means less ex­po­sure to an­tibi­otics. This is a clas­sic ex­am­ple of how stan­dards are a com­pro­mise between health goals and in­dus­try in­ter­ests.

But the ques­tion is what is the re­la­tion­ship between eat­ing a piece of chicken with 200 μg/kg oxyte­tra­cy­cline and the re­sis­tance of a bac­te­ria to the an­tibi­otic.The an­swer is, very lit­tle. The only plau­si­ble re­la­tion­ship is that eat­ing chicken with residues of oxyte­tra­cy­cline is like tak­ing the an­tibi­otic in small doses. This might make mi­crobes in the body re­sis­tant. But this is a ten­u­ous ar­gu­ment be­cause the mrl of 200 μg/kg is set not on the ba­sis of an­tibi­otic re­sis­tance but on the ba­sis of tox­i­c­ity of oxyte­tra­cy­cline, and there is no link between tox­i­c­ity and re­sis­tance. So, just by set­ting stan­dards for an­tibi­otics in food items, we will not be able to solve the re­sis­tance is­sue, be­cause the prob­lem is else­where.

The big­gest prob­lem is the emer­gence of re­sis­tant bac­te­ria in the an­i­mal and its trans­mis­sion through food and en­vi­ron­ment. A 2011 study by Na­tional An­timi­cro­bial Re­sis­tance Mon­i­tor­ing Sys­tem of US found that over half of the sam­ples of ground tur­key, pork chops and ground beef col­lected from su­per­mar­kets were tainted with an­tibi­oti­cre­sis­tant bac­te­ria like Sal­mo­nella, Ecoli and

Campy­lobac­ter. Con­sump­tion of th­ese prod­ucts, es­pe­cially in raw form, are the most im­por­tant route through which an­tibi­otic re­sis­tant bac­te­ria move from an­i­mals to hu­mans. They can also trans­mit to hu­mans through air, wa­ter and soil and through di­rect con­tact with af­fected an­i­mals and their meat.The bot­tom line is, till the time we keep mis­us­ing an­tibi­otics in an­i­mals we will not be able to solve the prob­lem of an­tibi­otics re­sis­tance. So what should we do?

Firstly, we need to learn from other parts of the world on what has worked and what has not. Coun­tries that have re­lied on set­ting stan­dards on an­tibi­otics in food, like the US, have not been able to con­trol an­tibi­otic re­sis­tance. On the other hand, coun­tries that have tried to re­duce the use of an­tibi­otics, like Scan­di­na­vian coun­tries, have had suc­cess.This means In­dia’s pri­or­ity should be to put sys­tems in place to re­duce the use of an­tibi­otics in poul­try. This re­quires a holis­tic ap­proach (see ‘Way ahead’).

Keep­ing an­tibi­otics effective is es­sen­tial for the public health. We can­not af­ford to squan­der this es­sen­tial public good in pur­suit of prof­its. This is the bot­tom line.

Chan­dra Bhushan is Deputy Direc­tor Gen­eral of CSE

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