Some British supermarket pork has been infected with a potentially deadly superbug, a study has found.
Tests revealed that more than 10% of the sampled pork products, including joints, chops and minced meat, were infected with bacteria that showed resistance to a “last resort” antibiotic used to treat serious diseases in humans. The contaminated products included some pork sold under the “Red Tractor assured” brand and RSPCA-secured and organic products.
The superbug is a variant of enterococci that can cause urinary tract and wound infections, among other things. In the most severe cases, the bacteria can infect the bloodstream, heart and brain.
It has become resistant to being treated with some types of antibiotics, which means that some of the drugs that a doctor usually prescribes would have no effect in treating disease.
Drug-resistant bacterial strains are a major health problem, with rates known to be rising across Europe. There are many reasons why bacteria develop ways to get around antibiotics, but a key problem is that antibiotics have been widely used in livestock production to treat and prevent diseases, especially on factory farms.
These farms can act as incubators for potentially fatal drug-resistant diseases in humans, and antibiotic resistance is now considered one of the world’s biggest threats to public health. A UK government review of antimicrobial resistance in 2016 estimated that superbugs kill at least 700,000 people worldwide each year, which could rise to 10 million extra deaths by 2050 if left unchecked.
The new test, which is shared exclusively with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Guardian, suggests that the enterococcal superbug is more prevalent in British meat than previously thought. A government survey published in 2018 found it in one in 100 tested pig and poultry products. But the new tests found it in 13 out of 103 samples and also detected it in organic meat, despite the fact that organic farmers use significantly less antibiotics on their animals.
Experts said the “worrying” revelations reinforced the need for more surveillance.
Tim Lang, Professor Emeritus of Food Policy at City, University of London, said: “These results suggest that the use of antibiotics is by no means under control in parts of the meat industry. Buying food is a matter of trust; no consumers have X-ray specifications to see what these results show. There is no label. “
In response, a spokesman for Red Tractor said its certified pig farms were required to use antibiotics responsibly under the direction of a veterinarian.
The RSPCA said: “As an animal welfare organization, we hope and expect to see that higher welfare systems will require lower use of antimicrobials, which in turn will reduce the risk of developing antimicrobial resistance. This would improve livestock life as well as protect human health.”
Gareth Morgan, head of agricultural policy at the Soil Association, said: “Lower levels of antibiotic resistance in organic products can be explained by the very strong restrictions on antibiotic use in organic farming.
The Veterinary Directorate, the state farm in charge of antibiotic use on farms, said in a statement: “We are committed to reducing unnecessary use of antibiotics in animals and it remains our intention to strengthen our national legislation in this area.”
The FSA points out that cooking meat should thoroughly kill or reduce most bacteria, and handling it hygienically will help reduce the risk. It must always be stored separately in the refrigerator, and hands, knives and boards must be washed thoroughly after handling.
In what is believed to be the first UK study of its kind, the World Animal Protection campaign team commissioned Fera Science to investigate the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant enterococci in pork produced under three different food insurance schemes as well as unsecured products.
Researchers bought 103 samples of pork – 22 labeled as Red Tractor, 27 each from the RSPCA and organic schemes and 27 without a guarantee label – from supermarkets and online stores in Yorkshire. All were from British farms, except for products that had no warranty marking.
The meat was then analyzed for enterococci and the 25 positive samples were tested for antibiotic resistance. Of the infected samples, all but two contained enterococci that were resistant to at least one antibiotic.
Of the contaminated samples, 13 were resistant to the antibiotic vancomycin. Five of these were Red Tractor products, four were uninsured and two were each organic and RSPCA. Vancomycin – part of the glycopeptide class of antibiotics – is often referred to as a “last resort” antibiotic because of its importance in the treatment of the most serious and life-threatening infections.
The glycopeptide avoparcin was widely used on farms to fatten livestock faster, until the EU banned it in 1997, after practices were widely accused of spreading superbugs from livestock to humans.
Despite the ban, studies have suggested that the use of other antibiotics in livestock production has contributed to persistent glycopeptide resistance in bacteria carried by livestock.
Some enterococci have been shown to be resistant to other classes of drugs classified as “critically important” to human health. Some of these drugs, including fluoroquinolones and macrolides, continue to be used on British pig farms, despite calls to limit their use.
A spokesman for Red Tractor said: “Our standards only allow the use of the highest priority critically important antibiotics as a last resort when absolutely necessary to protect pigs’ health.”
Although the UK pig industry says it has reduced the use of antibiotics on farms in recent years, concerns have been raised that as one type of drug has been phased out, farmers and veterinarians have turned to others instead of fully out to address inadequate welfare standards.
Cóilín Nunan, a scientific adviser at Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, said: “Much higher welfare standards can reduce animal stress and disease and eliminate the need for most antibiotic use in pig breeding.”
The Soil Association said glycopeptides were never used in organic farming. One possible explanation for the fact that vancomycin-resistant bacteria were found on organic meat was that it had spread to organic farms via the environment, including the water supply.
More than half of all antibiotics globally are used on animals, and a reduction in drug use in agriculture is considered crucial to help combat the problem.
Earlier this year, the EU introduced stricter rules banning the feeding of antibiotics to groups of healthy animals. The UK has so far failed to commit to similar rules, which has given warnings that there is a risk of falling behind in combating the spread of antibiotic-resistant diseases.
Mark Holmes, professor of microbial genomics and veterinary science at the University of Cambridge, called on the UK government to adopt EU standards: “Antibiotic management in UK agriculture has improved significantly over the last few years, but there is always room for improvement. ”
Lindsay Duncan, head of agricultural campaigns at the charity World Animal Protection, said: “The UK government needs to stop the routine use of antibiotics on livestock, as the EU has recently done, and to recognize a reduction in the consumption of animal products. is needed to solve the myriad problems caused by factory farming. “