Overuse of antibiotics
Many scientists now acknowledge that by using antibiotics unnecessarily we encourage the rapid spread of antibiotic-resistant infections. It has long been known that overuse of antibiotics on factory farms leads to antibiotic resistance in food poisoning bacteria, like salmonella. But in the last two years, scientific evidence has also implicated intensive farming in the rise of two serious superbugs: a new strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in farm animals, which is spreading rapidly and transferring to humans, and a new and almost untreatable type of E.coli that is causing large numbers of deaths in the UK and elsewhere, especially among the elderly.
Salmonella and Campylobacter
Across the EU in 2009 there were up to three million cases of food-poisoning caused by the top two food bacteria, Campylobacter and Salmonella. When these bugs become resistant to antibiotics it causes delays in treatment while doctors find an effective antibiotic to treat the bug – delays that could prove fatal. In official tests carried out in the UK in 2007-08 on fresh chickens bought from shops, 87% of the Campylobacter isolates and 41% of the Salmonella isolates were resistant to at least one antibiotic. Research in France, Ireland and Italy has also found antibiotic resistance in Campylobacter and Salmonella, suggesting this is a widespread problem.
In November 2012, we called on the Minister of State for Agriculture to ban the use of fluoroquinolone antibiotics in poultry production to reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance in campylobacter and other infections in humans.
Farm-animal MRSA is spreading on intensive farms in continental Europe. In the Netherlands it already affects 39% of pigs and almost 50% of pig farmers. In 2004-2005, a new strain of MRSA was found in pigs on Dutch factory farms and by 2006, it was estimated that 50% of all Dutch pig farmers carried the strain. In June 2011, the first-ever documented cases of MRSA were confirmed in British farm animals – with 15 cases of a completely new type of MRSA found in milk from dairy farms throughout England.
In Dutch hospitals 25% of all MRSA cases are now caused by the farm-animal strain, and farmers are no longer permitted in general wards without prior screening. It has been found in chickens, dairy cows and calves and in 20% of pork, 21% of chicken and 3% of beef. It has also been found in farm animals and people in Germany and Denmark from which we import large quantities of pork.
The Dutch government says 'the high use of antibiotics in livestock farming is the most important factor in the development of antibiotic resistance, a consequence of which is the spread of resistant micro-organisms (MRSA included) in animal populations.' (Dr C P Veerman, Dutch Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Standards, Letter to Dutch Parliament December 2006).
A new type of resistance in E.coli, Extended-Spectrum Beta-Lactamase (ESBL), has been spreading globally in recent years. E.coli are a major cause of urinary-tract infections and blood poisoning. In the UK 5–10% of all urinary-tract infections caused by E.coli are now ESBLs. Based on our research , the Soil Association estimates that 750,000–1,500,000 people in the UK contracted an E. coli infection in 2011, resulting in nearly 40,000 cases of blood poisoning and nearly 8,000 deaths. Cases of E. coli blood poisoning have increased nearly fourfold in the last 20 years.
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