Next week the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) will be holding an international symposium in Berlin bearing the title Antimicrobial Resistance in the Food Chain. The assembled experts will be discussing data on just how much antibiotic is used in animal husbandry and what the current level of resistance in foodborne pathogens actually is. The overall aim is that “risks can be objectified before being assessed. Measures for improving the situation can then be suggested.”
This is an issue that I have written about many times, because I see it as one of the most serious threats to human health that we face and because the food industry has been playing a key role in the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This is largely because of the widespread use of antimicrobial drugs as growth promoters in food animals. Overuse of therapeutic antibiotics to control disease in intensively reared flocks and herds has also contributed to the problem, but it is the discovery that animals get bigger faster if they are given low doses of antimicrobials in their feed that has created a huge market for these drugs as growth promoters.
The irony is that we have been aware of this problem for more than forty years, yet almost nothing has been done to prevent potentially dangerous bacteria becoming resistant to a range of clinically important antibiotics. Some individual countries, notably Denmark and the Netherlands, have adopted national strategies to reduce antibiotic use in agriculture and have achieved some success, but there has been little sign of the kind of international effort that is really needed. This has consequences not just for clinicians, who face a shrinking armoury of effective drugs to treat disease, but for food safety too. More and more foodborne disease outbreaks are being caused by pathogens that show resistance to multiple therapeutic drugs. This includes the large and fatal outbreak of E. coli O104:H4 that hit Germany in 2011, and more recently a Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak in the USA associated with raw chicken that affected 362 people and put nearly 40% of them in hospital.
So the BfR symposium is welcome, but I can’t help feeling that it is a bit late to still be assessing the risks. The problem is clear and so is the solution. Impose a worldwide ban the use of antimicrobials as growth promoters and place strict controls on their therapeutic use by veterinarians and by doctors. Even if we did that tomorrow it might well be too late. Sadly it won’t happen any time soon because there are too many vested interests involved and because it will inevitably result in more expensive food and healthcare. We know there is a serious problem, but we seem to lack the collective will to do anything about it until it’s too late.
If you would like to know more about the issue of antibiotic resistance in foodborne pathogens you might like to read our feature article on the subject.