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Study links UK deaths to over-use of antibiotics in chicken farming

A new study [1] has found that approximately 280 people are dying every year in the UK from blood infections caused by the highly antibiotic-resistant E. coli superbug ESBL, acquired from chicken.

ESBL (extended spectrum beta lactamase) E.coli have become an increasing problem on farms and in human medicine over the last decade with its resistance being caused by modern antibiotics known as third and fourth generation “cephalosporins”, commonly used in chicken production.

As these antibiotics are used in both farming and in hospitals, it has been difficult to work out how much of the problem arises from each sector. However, in the first study of its kind, an international team of scientists used a Dutch genetic fingerprinting study to estimate the proportion of ESBL E.coli blood-poisoning infections and deaths in humans resulting from the use of third-generation cephalosporin.

Since 2012, all British poultry producers have voluntarily stopped using cephalosporins but the same type of antibiotics are still used in pig production and dairy farming. There are also concerns that at least two other types of antibiotics used in chicken production have the known ability to maintain ESBL E.coli on chicken farms and that without action on these the problem will persist, even though the use of cephalosporins has now been suspended.

Gareth Williams is an organic poultry farmer from Rhug Estate in Denbighshire, who has been involved in farming for more than 34 years. Rhug was producing 150 chickens a week when he first took charge of the poultry operation there a little over five years ago but produce around 550 a week now, with a massive rise in the number of birds sold directly to the customer.

“Many conventional farms have antibiotics in the feed or water they give to poultry so that the whole flock are being treated all the time,” explained Mr Williams. “Because we are organic we are prohibited from the routine use of antibiotics and also we don't want to. We manage disease problems by keeping smaller flocks living in free range conditions, so that diseases don't spread so readily from one bird to another. We aim to produce strong birds with robust immune systems that don't need a constant stream of antibiotics to keep them healthy.”

Bodies that promote organic food and farming, including the Soil Association and Organic Centre Wales, have been keen to point out to consumers the differences between poultry reared using intensive farming methods and those raised organically, but they have also been actively campaigning against the over-use of antibiotics in poultry production.

“There are clearly animal welfare issues with intensive poultry farming that are addressed when birds are reared organically, but people often forget the potential impact on human health,” said Neil Pearson, from Organic Centre Wales. “As well as prohibiting the routine use of antibiotics, organic standards do not allow the use of synthetic yolk colourants and other feed additives to ensure that organic birds have a far more natural diet.”

ENDS

[1] ESBL E. coli , Collignon et al. 2013, Human Deaths and Third-Generation Cephalosporin use in Poultry, Europe, Emerging Infectious Diseases, report
Appendix with data by country, http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/19/8/12-0681-techapp1.pdf
The authors of the study include a World Health Organization adviser and government and other scientists from various countries.

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