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Chicken on sale
The study targeted supermarkets across GermanyImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Food scare

January 10, 2012

An environmental group has found large amounts of bacteria resistant to antibiotics in chicken meat bought in German supermarkets. Friends of the Earth say the findings show the perils of industrial farming.


On Monday, a German environmental group announced its findings that of 20 samples of chicken meat bought at supermarkets across the country, 12 were infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The group, called Friends of the Earth Germany, acquired its chicken at supermarkets in Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Nuremberg and the Stuttgart region. The study found that ten samples contained E. coli that produces ESBL (Extended Spectrum Beta-Lactamase) enzymes, while two had MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) bacteria.

"The extent of the contamination of foodstuffs with hospital germs is a clear warning signal of the collateral damage of industrial animal farming," said Hubert Weiger, the organization's chairman, in a statement. He also called for an end to industrial farming.

However, in a separate e-mail sent to Deutsche Welle, the group acknowledged that this study was "not representative" of all chicken sold across the country, and called for further study by the German government.

Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner
Ilse Aigner wants better regulation on antibioticsImage: picture alliance / dpa

Antibiotics are often used in large-scale agriculture as a pre-emptive way of keeping livestock healthy. However, their overuse has been shown to lead to bacteria developing resistance to the very effects that the drugs are designed to prevent. For years, many scientists have called for their use only in limited situations where the animals become sick.

In an interview with the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung, a paper based in northwestern Germany, Helmut Born, secretary general of the German Farmers' Association, dismissed this new study as fearmongering, and said that the study study contained "no real new insights."

Calls to limit antibiotics in livestock

Germany's Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner Tuesday submitted draft legislation to limit the use of antibiotics in livestock in response to the food scare. She said she wanted to reduce to "an absolute minimum" the use of such antibiotics in animals for slaughter.

She also said she would expand auditing powers for local public health officials.

The use of antibiotics in livestock has come under closer scrutiny around the world in recent years. Last week, the Federal Drug Administration, in the United States, set new limits on the use of cephalosporins, in cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys.

In May 2011, two members of the European Parliament, from Italy and Sweden, called on an expansion of funding for the Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to better understand antibiotic resistance in the European livestock supply.

A scientific study published in June 2011 from the Netherlands found that amongst 200 pieces of chicken bought from grocery stores in the southern Netherlands, 80 percent contained multidrug-resistance, and that same resistance was also present in less than five percent of stool samples of nearly 900 hospital patients in the same region.

Data compiled by the European Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance Network, based in Sweden, showed that amongst E. coli samples collected from Dutch patients, resistance to cephalosporins increased to 4.3 percent in 2009 from 0.1 percent in 2000.

A related Dutch study conducted by a team of scientists from across the Netherlands in August 2011, entitled "Antibiotics in food animal production and resistant bacteria in humans," and sent to the Dutch Ministry of Health, called for an extensive registry that would document what antibiotics were used on what animals, how much, and for what purpose.

Striking a balance

David Studholme
Studholme says that scientists have been aware of antibiotic-resistance for some timeImage: David Studholme

Microbiologists acknowledge that while finding the right balance between large-scale agriculture and the limiting antibiotic use is difficult, the mere presence of certain antibiotic bacteria is not necessarily a cause for alarm.

ESDL E. Coli is usually contracted from other infected patients, often in hospitals, and can lead to urinary tract infections, however it can be prevented through proper hygenic measures, including hand washing.

In a document published last year on its website, the Health Protection Agency, in the United Kingdom called ESDL E. Coli "an emerging problem," saying that the total infections had more than doubled in the country from 1994 to 2004, reaching over 17,000.

"We must not be too alarmist as these bacteria should be killed by proper cooking, since unlike some bacteria, MRSA do not produce heat-resistant spores," wrote David Studholme, a microbiology lecturer at the University of Exeter, in the United Kingdom, in an e-mail sent to Deutsche Welle.

"MRSA bacteria belong to the species Staphylococcus aureus. Strains of this species are often associated with food poisoning, but it is not clear from the report whether these particular strains on the chickens are capable of causing disease in humans."

He added that maintaining proper hygiene when handling raw meat and while cooking it - that the utensils be properly sterilized and that the meat be cooked through - almost always kills S. aureus bacteria.

"It is also worth noting that S. aureus is part of the normal flora of our skin and nasal passages et cetera," he wrote. "So we are exposed to it as a matter of course every day and it usually does not cause any problems."

Author: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Joanna Impey

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