Concerns about the use of antibiotics in the meat industry have raged for decades. Now a report claims that superbugs – or antimicrobial resistant bacteria – is in chicken and pork meat sold by the four major supermarket chains.
The new research, commissioned by Animals Australia and conducted by the University of Canberra’s Host-Microbe Interactions Research Group, was revealed on the ABC’s 7.30 report.
It says the most alarming discovery was bacteria that leads to resistance to the antibiotic Colistin – a drug of last resort for severe drug-resistant infections in hospital patients.
Dr Claire O’Brien, associate professor in biomedical science at the University of Canberra, says the study reveals that a “diverse array of bacterial species can be isolated from retail chicken and pork meat” and includes some of the leading pathogenic bacteria in humans.
“It [the research] shows that Australia is not immune to the global spread of antimicrobial genes, and better surveillance and prevention is more pressing than ever,” she says.
Health officials have been issuing warnings about antibiotic resistance for decades.
In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates more than 2.8 million people develop drug-resistant infections each year, and more than 35,000 people die as a result.
A World Health Organization report released in March says the development of new drugs capable of fighting drug-resistant infections is alarmingly slow. It says there are just 27 new antibiotics for the most threatening infections in the clinical trial stage compared with more than 1300 cancer drugs.
From 2017 to 2021, just one new antibiotic, cefiderocol, was approved that could treat the superbugs on WHO’s most critical list.
What the research found
The Canberra University study analysed 244 raw packaged chicken and 160 raw packaged pork samples from Aldi, Coles, IGA and Woolworths stores across metropolitan and regional NSW and the ACT.
- 33 types of bacterial species that cause infection in humans in the samples
- all the bacterial species showed resistance to at least one class of antibiotics that are classified as critically or highly important by the WHO
- 12 per cent of the bacteria species found had multi-drug resistance to antibiotics used in human medicine, i.e. they are ‘superbugs’.
Animals Australia legal counsel Shatha Hamade says: “The results of this study confirm the seriousness of this situation. Currently, public awareness is close to zero.
“People are buying chicken and pork products completely oblivious of related antibiotic-resistant concerns.”
Ms Hamade says Australia is trailing other developed nations in acting on the issue and maintains that consumers trust that food in supermarkets has been subjected to the most stringent regulation and safety checks, but that that is not the case.
The federal government Antimicrobial Resistance website says measures are in place to prevent and manage antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in food-producing animals and says food animals here have not become resistant to antibiotics that are important to human medicine.
It says that “a number of surveys done in Australia in recent years show a low risk of AMR in the food animal sector”.
A 2017 report, Antibiotic resistance in animals, prepared for the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority explains that veterinary antibiotics are used to cure animals of bacterial infection and are used “controversially” to promote growth and prevent infections.
It says: “Monitoring antibiotic use in agriculture has markedly improved over recent years, as has self-regulation, notably by the pig and poultry industries, and an evidence base for policy development is progressing.
“However, the emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance remains a priority if antibiotic use is to be regulated effectively.”
Animals Australia says antibiotics can be given to groups of animals being raised in poor conditions or handled in ways that can lead to disease. The European Union has banned the practice.
A 2022 report from the Monash University Centre to Impact AMR, commissioned by World Animal Protection, found antimicrobial resistant bacteria in raw packaged beef and salmon in Australian supermarkets.
Animals Australia and World Animal Protection want federal and state governments to introduce mandatory public reporting of antibiotic use across the animal agriculture sector. They are calling for a ban on the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, and for routine disease prevention.
Are you concerned about the use of antibiotics in animals to promote growth? Should the practice be banned? Have you reduced your meat consumption in recent years? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.