Chicken in farm

Chickens treated with antibiotics could compromise human health

E.coli resistant to fluoroquinolones is discovered in waste samples from Polish poultry farms supplying British supermarkets
06 July 2023 , Steve Smethurst

Experts call for improved hygiene standards on farms as well as stronger regulations as UK revises its veterinary medicine regulations post-Brexit

Polish poultry producer, SuperDrob is supplying UK supermarkets with birds treated with antibiotics that are ‘critically important for human health’. 

SuperDrob, which supplies frozen products to Asda, Lidl and Iceland, was the subject of an investigaton led by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), which found it sources chicken from farms that use fluoroquinolone antibiotics. Sales of the antibiotic have increased by more than 70% in Poland, according to the research. 

The BIJ tested waste samples from a number of Polish poultry farms that supplied SuperDrob, and discovered bacteria – including E.coli resistant to fluoroquinolones.

The testing was overseen by Tim Walsh, Professor of Medical Microbiology at Oxford University. He described the findings as “seriously worrying”. He said there had been a failure at an EU level to monitor antibiotic use in Poland, and that the country’s soaring sales of high-priority antibiotics (including colistin, a last-resort drug used to treat serious infections that have not responded to other medicines) should have caused alarm. 

Kath Dalmeny, CEO of food campaign group, Sustain said: “To waste our remaining antibiotics to cover up poor conditions on chicken farms is deeply irresponsible. They should only ever be used on individual sick animals, not preventative or mass medication.”

Jo Raven, Director of Thematic Research and Engagements at the Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return initiative said the BIJ research “reveals the very real risks to humans posed by the everyday use of antibiotics in the protein supply chain.”

She said: “With approximately 70% of antibiotic use occurring in animal agricultural supply chains, it’s clear that stronger regulations and stricter enforcement will be necessary. As the UK revises its veterinary medicine regulations post-Brexit, there is a real opportunity for the government to increase its ambition and help avoid a repeat of this tragic outcome.”

“Regulation aimed at ending all forms of routine antibiotic use and all purely preventative group treatments is essential.”

Peter Kemple Hardy, UK Campaigns Director, World Animal Protection said the findings were “not at all surprising”. 

He said: “The only way suppliers can produce high volumes of cheap meat to meet the needs of the market is by compromising animal welfare. The only way to keep enough animals alive to reach slaughter is the wholesale dependence of factory farming on antibiotic overuse to compensate for cruel, outdated practices.

“Regulation aimed at ending all forms of routine antibiotic use and all purely preventative group treatments is essential.”

Erik Millstone, Emeritus Professor of Science Policy in the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex told EHN Extra: “The safest way to reduce livestock infections is to improve hygiene standards on farms and in abattoirs and meat cutting plants. If veterinary antibiotics are used, they should only rely on compounds that are not vital for treating human infections.”  

A spokesperson for SuperDrob said it had imposed a reduction policy of a minimum of 10% year-on-year, with a view to phasing out the use of enrofloxacin and colistin in poultry treatment by the end of 2025. The supplier said it had “firm policies” in place to ensure they were only used when justified. 

The Polish chief veterinary inspectorate added that preventive use of antibiotics was “not common practice” in Poland.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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