Fresh concerns over use of antibiotics in farming
The horse meat scandal provides the opportunity for Europe in general - and Ireland in particular - to establish a global reputation for high-quality standards in food production
Horse meat is no joke. But at least it is not killing us. More than 25,000 people across Europe die each year because of bacterial infections that are impossible to treat.
As doctors prescribe ever more antibiotics to cure our ills, the bacteria which cause these infections respond by mutating, resisting and multiplying. Antibiotic resistance is a real killer.
We know that the same classes of antibiotics used to treat humans are given – sometimes liberally – to animals. Last month, a report from the Food and Drink Administration in the US revealed that the meat industry accounts for nearly four-fifths of all antibiotics used.
As with humans, antibiotics can be vital to animal health. The painful udder infection in cows, known as mastitis, is caused by bacteria such as Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus. Antibiotics aren’t only prescribed when the cow is showing clinical signs. During her “dry” period, it is routine on most Irish dairy farms to give the cow preventative antibiotics.
Is this always necessary? The mantra of Animal Health Ireland is that prevention is better than cure, and there are other ways than antibiotics to stop bacterial infection.
Disinfecting the cow’s teats after milking can prevent new mastitis infections by 50 per cent, according to Teagasc researcher Dr Finola McCoy. “Farmers need to take an extra few minutes to really clean the teats,” she says, “but time can be pressured as herds get bigger.”
Irish farmers are increasingly using preventative techniques. Sales of vaccines have trebled in the last decade. Dr Donal Lynch, a vet who primarily works with cattle, believes that farmers have moved away from a reliance on antibiotics.
“Vaccination has increased,” he says. “We use less antibiotics now because of herd health programmes and better farm management”.
Feeding newborn calves the first milk from their mother is a simple preventative measure that occurs on most Irish farms. This “colostrum” is packed full of anti- bodies that protect the calf against disease.
The danger for humans is not just the overuse of antibiotics with the consequent mutation of bacteria and their resistance to available medication. It is also the threat posed by the crossover from animal to human of infections and the bacteria required to treat them.
Bacteria are not always fussy about where to settle down and multiply; the gut of a human, a pig or a cow will do nicely. And from there they can bounce in their trillions, back and forth from humans to animals, building up resistance along the way.
This isn’t a new story. In the 1970s, broiler chickens began to suffer from lameness due to a bone infection caused by a strain of the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh discovered that the bacterium, known as ST5, had jumped across the species barrier from humans in Poland, and from there it flew around the world infecting broiler chicken flocks and acquiring a resistance to a range of antibiotics.