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Piglets living in cruel and unhygienic conditions on a factory farm somewhere in the UK Photo: FarmsNotFactories.
Piglets living in cruel and unhygienic conditions on a factory farm somewhere in the UK Photo: FarmsNotFactories.
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To stop antibiotic resistant superbugs, keep off factory farmed meat!

Alastair Kenneil

21st September 2016

All 193 UN states will sign a declaration today to fight the spread of drug-resistant 'superbugs', writes Alastair Kenneil. The problem is often blamed on over­prescription of antibiotics by doctors. But that's to ignore the massive use of antibiotics on animals in factory farms, both to prevent infection and to assist weight gain - turning farms into superbug breeding centres.

This systematic overuse of antibiotics in factory farms is fuelling the emergence of resistant bacteria. These superbugs can then pass to humans through the environment, or via meat that we buy in the supermarket.

For decades factory farmers have been pumping antibiotics into livestock to compensate for inhumane and disease-inducing conditions. Now, bacteria are fighting back.

A new ground-breaking study of factory farmed UK supermarket pork and chicken has found that 71% of the samples were contaminated with antibiotic-resistant E. coli bacteria that cause life-threatening kidney infections and blood poisoning. The figure for just pork was alarmingly 63%.

Pigs in factory farms are so overcrowded, stressed and unhealthy they have to be routinely given antibiotics even when no disease has been diagnosed in any of the animals. What's more, drugs classed as ‘critically important' for people may be used.

In the EU, from where 54% of the pork consumed in the UK is imported, factory pig farms can keep pregnant mother pigs confined in steel cages for 20 weeks a year. In UK low welfare farms, including Red Tractor, this is allowed for 11 weeks a year when she is feeding her piglets.

The high levels of stress from having to endure weeks of this torture makes her vulnerable to injuries and disease.

To achieve maximum weight gain piglets in factory farms can be taken away from their mothers when they are only 21 days old, too early for their immune systems to develop properly. This means they have to be routinely given antibiotics as an integral part of the production cycle.

Intensive farms 'breeding' antibiotic-resistant bacteria

Just as doctors strive to reduce antibiotic use in the surgery, so farm use is increasing. Around a quarter of all antibiotics prescribed in the UK are given to pigs in factory farms. This routine misuse of antibiotics means that bacteria become resistant, bringing us closer to the end of antibiotics as a cure for an increasing number of human diseases.

The study, commissioned by the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics and conducted by Dr Mark Holmes from Cambridge University, is the first study to examine UK-origin retail meat for resistance to a wide range of key antibiotics for treating dangerous E. coli urinary-tract and blood-poisoning infections in people.

The study tested 189 samples of low welfare, UK-origin pork and chicken meat from the seven largest supermarkets from across the UK (ASDA, Aldi, Coop, Morrisons, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Waitrose).

Across factory farmed pig and chicken meat from all these supermarkets, the study found E.coli bacteria resistant to three highly important antibiotics for treating E.coli infections in people.

The research found soaring levels of resistance in chicken meat, with a staggering 24% of chicken samples testing positive for ESBL E. coli, a type of E. coli which is resistant to a family of antibiotics classed as ‘critically important' for people (the cephalosporins). These antibiotics are widely used for treating life-threatening E. coli blood poisoning in humans.

On 19% of pig and chicken meat, E. coli bacteria showed high levels of resistance to the antibiotic Gentamicin, which is of vital importance in treating serious urinary tract infections in people. Resistance to another essential antibiotic, Trimethoprim (which is the most widely used drug for treating lower urinary-tract infections in people) was found on 51% of pork & chicken samples.

The findings provide further evidence that the overuse of antibiotics on British farms is undermining the treatment of dangerous E. coli infections in humans.

Exposing humans to potentially fatal infections

This is of huge concern, as the number of serious E. coli infections is at a record high and increasing every year. E.coli is by far the most common cause of urinary tract and dangerous blood poisoning in humans, and can also cause meningitis. These kinds of infections can be fatal if they do not respond to antibiotics.

But the last 25 years has seen a steady increase in resistance to some of the most important remaining antibiotics which can treat these infections. No new antibiotics for treating E. coli infections have been discovered for over 35 years.

Increasing resistance is leading to record levels of E. coli blood poisoning. Figures we have assembled show that in 2015 there were over 45,000 E. coli blood poisoning infections in the UK.

The number of blood-poisoning infections has increased every year since 2000 (when it stood at about 12,000 or so), and is increasing by about 2,000 each year now. E. coli is by far the most common cause of blood poisoning nowadays, causing more blood poisoning than the next four bacterial causes of blood poisoning combined.

Meanwhile, many important antibiotics - including a number of those examined in the study - are used in far greater quantities in livestock farming than in human medicine, often given to whole groups of (mostly healthy) animals.

This systematic overuse of antibiotics in factory farms is fuelling the emergence of resistant bacteria. These superbugs can then pass to humans through the environment, or via meat that we buy in the supermarket.

The antibiotic resistance crisis is predicted to kill one person every 3 seconds by 2050. Over a third of these deaths will be caused by drug-resistant E. coli. This catastrophe is now unfolding before us.

The silience of the supermarkets

Supermarkets have remained too silent on this issue. While our vital drugs fail, they continue to permit unacceptable antibiotic use in their supply chains.

Supermarkets must now take share the responsibility for tackling this crisis by banning the routine preventative mass medication of groups of animals, dramatically curbing farm-use of the ‘critically important' antibiotics in their supply chains, and setting specifications around good animal husbandry.

Animals should - and can - be kept healthy through good husbandry and welfare, not through routine medication. It's time to stop sacrificing our animals - and our antibiotics - for cheap meat.

As farmers strive to compete with cheap imported pork, many farmers break EU and the UK regulations by depriving the growing pigs of straw (or other bedding material) to reduce labour costs. Crammed into small pens without the ability to express their natural instincts to root in straw for food and play with, pigs are stressed and fight thus increasing their vulnerability to disease.

Without straw the pig waste can more easily drop through the concrete floor slats into tanks underneath. The effluent is spread onto fields, sickening local residents with a toxic stench of ammonia and a cocktail of other gases and disease-causing bio aerosols.

This effluent inevitably leaks into watercourses, killing fish and other wildlife in rivers and the sea. In contrast, pig waste on outdoor farms, whose certification system demands limited pig numbers, nourishes the soil and forms part of the crop cycle that grows the pig feed.

Competing with imports is driving UK farmers in to a downward spiral where farms have to consolidate and reduce labour or go bankrupt. In the past 15 years the UK pig herd has dropped by half, while 70% of the imports have been raised in conditions that are illegal in the UK.

Join the growing movement for high-welfare farming!

The good news is that conscientious consumers are buying pork from high welfare farms. Today 25% of UK pork has been raised either outdoors, or indoors with plenty of straw and space to move around, where the pigs are happy and healthy and rarely, if ever, need antibiotics.

The solution? Of course we must back today's UN initiative to tackle the problem of microbial resistance on a global level. But we can also act closer to home and join the growing movement against factory farming by only buying meat from high welfare farms.

How? In supermarkets, only buy pork with the labels RSPCA Assured, Outdoor Bred, Free Range or best of all, Organic. Ask for high welfare pork in butchers, farmers' markets or online.

It doesn't cost much more - four sausages from a factory pig farm cost the same as three sausages from a real farm where pigs are healthy and free to move around. Reducing our meat intake also helps avoid obesity, diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer.

We can all give up half a sausage and help bring an end to pig factories, for our health and humanity's sake.

 


 

Alastair Kenneil is a campaigner with Pig Pledge, a project of Farms not Factories. As a former hill farmer raising sheep in Argyll, he became aware that animals thrive out of doors in a natural environment, and committed to the virtues of sustainable farming. He later became a film-maker, working on TV documentaries about remote communities around the world and their distinctive cultures for the BBC, Channel 4 and Discovery.

Take the Pig Pledge now!

Petition:  Jeremy Hunt MP, Secretary of State for Health: Please save our antibiotics! (38 Degrees)

 

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