Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE -

WHAT SHOULD I eat now? Is there noth­ing that is safe?” This is what I am asked ev­ery time the Cen­tre for Sci­ence and En­vi­ron­ment (cse) does a study on tox­ins in food.It is a fact that our food is be­com­ing un­healthy—not be­cause of deliberate adul­ter­ation but be­cause we are choos­ing to pro­duce it in un­safe ways. In­dia is at the be­gin­ning of in­dus­trial food pro­duc­tion fo­cused on ef­fi­ciency and prof­its, and not on con­sumer safety, so it still has a choice to get it right.Why should the coun­try not ex­er­cise its right to food that se­cures liveli­hoods and nutri­tion?

This time cse has looked at an­tibi­otics in chicken. Its lab­o­ra­tory bought 70 sam­ples of chicken from dif­fer­ent mar­kets across the Na­tional Cap­i­tal Re­gion. It an­a­lysed each an­i­mal for six an­tibi­otics: oxyte­tra­cy­cline, chlorte­tra­cy­cline and doxy­cy­cline (class tetra­cy­clines); en­rofloxacin and ciprofloxacin (class flu­o­ro­quinolones) and neomycin, an amino­gly­co­side. All th­ese an­tibi­otics are crit­i­cal for hu­mans. Th­ese are the same medicines we are pre­scribed when we are taken ill. Th­ese are life-sav­ing drugs.

To­day we know an­tibi­otic re­sis­tance is al­most a health pan­demic. It is said that hu­mans are headed to­wards a post-an­tibi­otic era, where th­ese mir­a­cle medicines will not work.No new class of an­tibi­otics has been dis­cov­ered for the past 20-odd years, so what we have is what we should keep for crit­i­cal treat­ment.It is well known that re­sis­tance is grow­ing be­cause of our over­ex­po­sure to an­tibi­otics. A drug is no longer effective for treat­ment when mi­crobes be­come re­sis­tant to it.

But we do not re­alise that our over­ex­po­sure to an­tibi­otics is also grow­ing be­cause of the food we eat. This food has been grown by serv­ing it an­tibi­otics. This is what cse found in the chicken sam­ples. Of the 70 sam­ples, 40 per cent—ev­ery sec­ond chicken tested—had an­tibi­otic residues and 17 per cent of the sam­ples had more than one an­tibi­otic present in the mus­cle, kid­ney or liver.

There is a link between the an­tibi­otics found in chicken and the prob­lem of an­tibi­otic re­sis­tance in hu­mans. In In­dia, 13 stud­ies done in var­i­ous hos­pi­tals have found ev­i­dence of re­sis­tance to the same an­tibi­otics cse found in chicken. This is not a co­in­ci­dence.It is a deadly fact.

Should we then stop eat­ing chicken? Or should we in­sist that poul­try is pro­duced with­out an­tibi­otics?

The poul­try in­dus­try uses an­tibi­otics not to treat the dis­eased chicken. It uses an­tibi­otics be­cause it is wor­ried that chick­ens will get dis­eased. They are bred in over­crowded and of­ten highly un­san­i­tary con­di­tions, so chicken farm­ers pump an­tibi­otics in the wa­ter birds drink to pre­vent any out­break. Their need to use an­tibi­otics comes from the method they have cho­sen to pro­duce food. This is not all.The poul­try in­dus­try also uses an­tibi­otics for profit. When the chicken is given an­tibi­otics-laced feed, it puts on weight. Farm­ers, there­fore, buy an­tibi­otics in bulk and mix them in chicken feed.Or they buy the pre-mix feed made by the big poul­try. It in­cludes an­tibi­otics and its la­bel claims it will pro­mote growth in broiler chicken.

And why not? There is no reg­u­la­tion against the use of an­tibi­otics in chicken. At best, the gov­ern­ment has is­sued weak and in­con­se­quen­tial guide­lines for “ju­di­cious” use of an­tibi­otics in an­i­mals. The Bureau of In­dian Stan­dards spec­i­fi­ca­tion for poul­try feed does say that an­tibi­otics should not be used as growth pro­mot­ers, but it is not manda­tory.

This is where we need to choose the di­rec­tion of future pol­icy—the way we will pro­duce food and reg­u­late safety. There are three op­tions be­fore us. One, that we fol­low the US, which has not yet reg­u­lated the use of an­tibi­otics as growth pro­mot­ers in its in­dus­try. In­stead ,it has set lim­its for an­tibi­otic residues that can be present at dif­fer­ent lev­els in dif­fer­ent parts of the chicken— kid­ney, liver or mus­cle.Or we can fol­low Den­mark, Swe­den and some oth­ers who re­strict and even ban the use of cer­tain an­tibi­otics in an­i­mals.Or we can find an­other ap­proach, even bet­ter for health and liveli­hoods.Let us dis­cuss this.

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