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Is Supermarket Chicken Going to Kill Us All?

Is it time to put down those hot wings or are we all doomed to an antibiotic-resistance apocalypse anyway? We asked an expert.

by Morgan Harries
06 September 2016, 12:00am

A supermarket chicken, probs covered in E. coli (Photo by Jo Fuertes-Knight)

A new study has tested supermarket chicken and found that one in four had antibiotic-resistant E. coli present in it. That means that when you get gross raw chicken juice on yourself because you didn't wash up right, you might be in danger of contracting food poisoning that makes you vomit all over your laptop at work the next day. And that's the best of it.

In order to figure out what started this scary E. coli strain, why it's legally allowed in supermarkets, and whether we should stop making chicken stir fry forever, we spoke to Emma Rose, a representative from Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, the campaigning group that commissioned the Cambridge study.

VICE: So what did your study reveal, Emma?
Emma Rose: It was the first study that has revealed E. coli that is resistant to a broad number of antibiotics. Not just one, but three types, which are also used to treat infections in humans, which is pretty concerning.

How worried should the general chicken consumer be about the presence of this type of E. coli in their food?
Extremely worried, if I'm honest. Some people would just say, cook your meat to 72 degrees and that kills any risk of contracting the E. coli bugs. But what this actually shows is the prevalence of E. coli in the UK pig and poultry herd. This bacteria can pass to humans through meat in supermarkets, sure, but also through the environment, through water, through contact with other humans, through contact with animals. A vegan who has never seen an animal or touched meat in their life could still encounter resistant bacteria that has come into existence because of farming. It's a no-one-is-safe kind of deal.

I read about a deadly superbug type of E. coli being found in the US. Do you think the same thing could be in the UK soon?
Yes. We're seeing that already – the number of E. coli blood infections has been on the rise for two decades, it reached record numbers in 2015. This is partly being driven by resistance, because a mild E. coli infection, if treated with antibiotics that don't work, will become a serious E. coli infection. Speaking to GPs and doctors on the front line, they are increasingly reporting that their first choice antibiotic will not work, and so they are turning to last choice antibiotics, which are a) often more toxic and much stronger, but b) they are the end of the line. Once resistance starts emerging to those antibiotics, we won't have anything left. This is in the context of 35 years of no new antibiotics being discovered for treating E. coli.

George Osborne said in April that antimicrobial resistance will be worse for humankind than cancer by 2050, and UK chief medical officer Sally Davies called this an "apocalyptic scenario". Do you agree with them?
Yes. We're facing a really, really serious problem. Around 10 million people worldwide are predicted to die each year because of antibiotic resistance by 2050. And one third of those deaths are predicted to be from drug-resistant E. coli. So what we tested for is set to account for over three million deaths a year worldwide by 2050. At the moment, 70 percent of bacteria globally have developed a resistance to antibiotics, which means we're getting down to our last resort antibiotics. So this isn't really a prediction for the future – it's happening right now.

Right, so this is far more than just some dodgy chicken. What has caused the emergence of antibiotics resistant E. coli in UK meat?
We're concerned primarily with the overuse of antibiotics in farming and its effect on the efficacy of the same drugs in humans. Vast quantities of drugs are used in farming, and because of the crossover between the drugs used in animals and those used in humans, the use in animals can undermine the ability of these antibiotics to work in people. Our particular area of concern is that while in human medicine, antibiotics are used to cure the sick, in farming they are routinely used to medicate whole groups of healthy animals, which is particularly prevalent in pig and poultry farming.

Why would antibiotics be used for healthy animals?
It's currently legal, amazingly enough, in the UK and the EU, to prescribe antibiotics of the same type as are used for humans to whole groups of animals before any disease has been diagnosed clinically. It's called prophylactic use. It generally happens in pig and poultry farming because these are generally the sectors where animals are farmed the most intensively. So for example, practices in intensive farming, like the early weaning of piglets, cause huge amounts of stress-related problems, and so to mitigate for this, piglets are given antibiotics preventatively. It's a kind of insurance policy for conditions that are disease-inducing, where animals are crowded into small spaces and outbreaks become common. Around 80 to 85 percent of all veterinary mass medication is used in those types of pig and poultry farming. And the best way you can fuel the emergence of resistance in bacteria is by continuing overdosing. So intensive battery farming creates the perfect conditions for this.

It's completely different to the procedure for prescribing antibiotics to people?
On a case-by-case basis, say before a caesarian or a tricky operation, antibiotics may be used preventatively in humans. And we think the same rationale should be applied to the veterinary sector. What we say is that the farming system needs a systemic overhaul and that we shouldn't be placing animals in conditions where they can't stay healthy without routine antibiotics.

Is that systematic overhaul going to happen any time soon?
There has been some resistance to it, but certainly recently, things are starting to change. That's because of forthcoming regulations coming in from the EU designed to safeguard public health by banning the routine preventative prescriptions of healthy animals. Consumer trust is definitely another one; people are starting to say, "I'm taking my child to the doctor with a problem and they aren't being prescribed antibiotics, but on the other hand those same antibiotics are being used with abandon in farming systems – there's something wrong here."

If these regulations are coming from the EU, how is Brexit going to affect things?
Very good question. The EU are very much calling on the UK to implement ambitious unilateral targets. It means the UK has no binding necessity to change, so it all of course depends on the nature of Brexit and the new trading negotiations that are going to take place. But it is likely that the UK will have to mirror the EU's policies. Many other European countries have implemented national bans and we should be doing the same immediately.

Shouldn't we be holding supermarkets to account? They now know that this E. coli is in their chickens...
Yes, it's also crucial for supermarkets to shoulder some responsibility. UK supermarkets have mostly been very quiet on the issue, permitting overdosing of antibiotics in their supply chains. And that has a huge impact, because supermarkets obviously dominate the grocery market, and they could use their vast buying power for good or for ill. We're saying, you need to use it to protect public health, to work with farmers and suppliers to reduce antibiotics use, to absorb some of the shocks and challenges that that transition will take, and to advocate for keeping animals healthy through better welfare standards rather than routine medication. The market has a huge role to play, and often where the industry goes, policy follows.

And then also the role of consumers and the general public should be to call for change. This isn't just a case of not eating meat or eating organic – although organic systems use far less antibiotics. We need systems shifts. So part of our activities are to get the public to call on retailers to put policies in place, to question why they aren't addressing the biggest public health crisis that we currently face, because they have a moral responsibility to do so.

That's all pretty terrifying. Thanks, Emma.

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