Gill Stannard

Friday, June 23, 2006

Antibiotics in food

From today's Australian

Meat eaters face immunity scare
Annabelle McDonald

PEOPLE who eat chicken, minced beef, pork chops and lettuce may develop an immunity to the drugs used to treat potentially fatal conditions such as meningitis and pneumonia.

Seven years after a landmark report by the Joint Expert Technical Advisory Committee on Antibiotic Resistance warned of drug immunity being passed through the food chain from animals to humans, an investigation is to be launched to measure the risk to consumers.

Scientists have long warned that the overuse of antibiotics, such as growth promoters in chicken, cattle and pigs can breed drug-resistant bugs that may impede antibiotic treatments of diseases in humans.

The inquiry, due to be completed next May, will estimate the amount of antibiotic-resistant bacteria existing in food. Chicken, minced beef, pork-shoulder chops and iceberg lettuce heads will be the initial focus of the study, after overseas research identified them as containing common antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Canberra Hospital Infectious Diseases Unit director Peter Collignon welcomed the research, saying people had the right to know what they were eating.

"This is an issue and we need this data," Professor Collignon said. "It is beyond doubt that whenever you use antibiotics, you get resistance. But the animal industry seems to be denying this is happening.

"In Australia we use 250,000kg of antibiotics in people every year. In animals we use 500,000kg - I believe most of this is a waste."

A federal Health Department spokesman was unable to say why the department waited seven years before implementing the recommendation made by the advisory committee to conduct a survey.

In a report prepared last year, Food Science Australia found drug-resistant strains of common food-poisoning bacteria, such as salmonella and enteroccus, sometimes left "clinicians with few reliable treatment options" with which to treat patients.

Professor Collignon said although Australia had managed the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria better than countries such as the US, the health and agriculture industries should work together to reduce the use of antibiotics by half.

Industry organisation Meat and Livestock Australia defended the use of antibiotics for animals, saying a government body - the National Residue Survey - already actively monitored chemical residues in meat to ensure they were within acceptable ranges.

"All livestock industries need to retain access to antibiotics for the production of healthy animals for food production," an MLA spokesman said yesterday.

"Without antibiotics, mortality rates would rise and animal welfare issues would become more prevalent. Australia has a very strict and conservative approach to the registration of agriculture and veterinary chemicals, administered by the Australian Pesticides & Veterinary Medicines Authority."

There are other arguments that could be used to counter the Livestock industry claims. Less intense farming tend to produce lower disease rates, vastly lowering the need to pump the animals full of antibiotics.

I haven't sourced the full report yet but I am guessing the inclusion of lettuce is due to cross contamination ie: poor food handling procedures where untensils used in preparing meat dishes are then used on the salad. The classic is the appearance of listeria on the lettuce particularly in sandwhich shops and help yourself salad bars. This is not a agricultural issue, rather how it is handled.

The safest bet for carnivores is to stick to organic or biodynamic meat. Also avoid the all you can eat salad bars!

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