By Rachael Porter
A newspaper report about ‘record levels’ of superbugs and resistance to antimicrobials in British chicken has upset a lot of people – not least because it bears no resemblance to the Food Standards Agency report it was based on.
Lazy and biased journalism: that is the main reaction from the Food Standards Agency, the British Poultry Council and a leading poultry vet to an article that was published in The Guardian on 15 January.
The article, which is still online, claims that not only do British supermarket chickens contain record levels of antibiotic-resistant super bugs, but also that there is a significant increase in the level of campylobacter in British-farmed chickens.
The report is simply ‘completely untrue’, the FSA says. “It suggested that there were ‘record levels’ of AMR, which was not the case; and referred to a ‘significant increase in campylobacter in British-farmed chicken’ which was incorrect,” an FSA spokesperson says.
“We didn’t think the way The Guardian reported the results of our Year 2 AMR levels in Campylobacter survey was accurate. The survey results were very clear that the reported changes in resistance to antibiotics were not significantly different, compared to the results from our Year 1 survey. The only significant rise was seen in ciprofloxacin, when compared to older data.
The FSA report – Antimicrobial resistance in campylobacter jejuni and campylobacter coli from retail chilled chicken in the UK – upon which the dodgy Guardian story was based, does have some interesting findings.
It reveals ‘the proportions of antimicrobial-resistant isolates found in this study were similar to that reported in the previous year (2014-2015), with resistance to erythromycin continuing to show a decreasing trend.’
It goes on to say: ‘Multi-drug resistance (MDR) in C coli was lower compared to that found in the previous year and MDR in C Jejuni was not detected and was, thus, likely to be very low’.
Significantly higher proportions of ciprofloxacin resistance were, however, seen in the data compared to a 2007/2008 survey and resistance to fluoroquinolones (ciprofloxacin and nalidixic acid) and tetracycline was most common. But resistance to erythromycin and gentamicin was much rarer in the Campylobacter isolates examined. So these antimicrobials are still very effective against the bacteria.
It was the positive aspects of the report’s findings – which outweigh the negative and provide balance to the debate about the use of antibiotics, more specifically fluoroquinolones, in poultry flocks – that were ignored in the Guardian’s article.
And the tone and language used not only implied that the use of these ‘final remaining weapons in the armoury of medicine’ was widespread across the poultry industry, where flocks are ‘mass medicated’, but that this was leaving the human population vulnerable to untreatable, antibiotic resistant campylobacter. The fact is the use of fluoroquinolones in the UK poultry sector has fallen by 99.78% during the past few years – from 372kg in 2014 to just 0.8kg in 2016. That’s less than a bag of sugar.
“Suggesting that the British poultry meat industry offers anything other than safe, wholesome and nutritious food, produced to world-class health and welfare standards, not only undermines our farmers but also shows a lack of knowledge about our sector,” says BPC Chief Executive Richard Griffiths.
The BPC issued a response to The Guardian’s article, which highlighted the continuing work by the industry to not only reduce antibiotic use, but to also reduce the levels of campylobacter in poultry meat production. “The latest set of results from the FSA survey show that only 6.5% of chicken tested positive for the highest level of campylobacter contamination, compared to 19.7% in 2014/2015.”
He reiterated that the sector follows WHO guidelines on the use of critically important antibiotics (for human health) only as a ‘last resort’. And that British poultry farmers have stopped the routine use of antibiotics and have achieved a 71% reduction in total antibiotic use during the past four years. At the same time, production increased by 11%, to almost a billion birds.
Poultry vet Daniel Parker – technical advisor to the British Poultry Council and a visiting lecturer at Cambridge University Veterinary School – was also dismayed by the article. “It was selective in what it took from the report and provided no context,” he says.
“And there was no reflection of what the industry has done to not only reduce antibiotic use but to also reduce levels of campylobacter in poultry meat production.”
He also says that there was no mention of the report’s findings that there was no different between campylobacter isolates taken from conventional and organic system. “And that finding is interesting. It indicates that it could be the environment and not the livestock that are harbouring these resistance bacteria. It poses other questions.
“It’s also interesting that The Guardian article didn’t mention it.”
He said that results of the FSA’s report were not that surprising – particularly for people working within the poultry sector. “But taken out of context, in this way, the public would be both surprised and alarmed. Yet there are actually very low levels of multi-drug resistance to campylobacter, so there are other antibiotics that can be used to treat humans who pick up a campylobacter infection. It doesn’t have to be fluoroquinolones.”
The only comment in the article came from Coilin Nunan, scientific adviser to the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics (ASOA). He says that the organisation is campaigning for a total ban on the use of fluoroquinolones in poultry flocks. “It is scandalous that the [government rules] still allow poultry to be mass medicated with fluoroquinolone antibiotics.”
He says that the use of this group of antibiotics was banned in the US more than 10 years ago, due to the strength of scientific evidence that using them in poultry flocks leads to an increase in the levels of resistant campylobacter.
Both the FSA and the BPC say that they were not asked by The Guardian journalist to comment on the report. And the FSA spokesperson told Poultry Business that when they did speak to the journalist who wrote the article, after it was published, that it was clear that she didn’t fully understand the report or its context. Most notably it failed to stress, as the FSA reiterated in the conclusion of its AMR report, that: “The risk of acquiring AMR-related infections from meat is very low if meat is handled and cooked thoroughly.”
But then that’s not much of a story or inspiration for a sensational headline.