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