INVESTIGATION: The High Risk Chickens


Antibiotics banned in US chicken farms a decade ago over links to the spread of potentially deadly bacteria in humans have been used in significantly increased quantities by Britain’s poultry industry…reports Andrew Wasley and Victoria Parsons, Bureau of Investigative Journalism

ChickensIndustry figures obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism show that UK poultry producers upped their use of a class of antibiotics known as fluoroquinolones by 59% in the latest 12-month reporting period – despite strong evidence they could be fuelling drug resistant forms of dangerous food poisoning illnesses in humans, including campylobacter, salmonella and Ecoli.

The antibiotics are used on factory farms where chickens and other poultry are intensively reared in sometimes crowded conditions that can encourage the spread of disease.  But serious problems arise because the same class of drugs are also used in human medicine to treat people who suffer severe cases of foodborne infections.

Experts warn their overuse in livestock farming has encouraged the bacteria behind these infections to evolve and become immune to the antibiotics’ effects.

It means consumers who contract the bugs – often from infected poultry meat ­–  and subsequently develop complications could find their lives at risk because they may not respond to antibiotic treatment.

Chicken farmsProfessor Mike Catchpole, one of Europe’s leading infectious disease experts and chief scientist at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), told the Bureau there already was evidence of an association between drug resistant salmonella and “excess mortality” – and that patients seriously ill with resistant forms of campylobacter were at “greater risk of death or invasive infections.”

He added that because some commonly used antibiotics are “no longer effective” in treating infections from resistant bacteria, doctors have been forced to choose alternatives that could “result in complications…and more severe side-effects”.

It is for these reasons that fluoroquinolones have been banned in poultry production in the US. The drugs are also prohibited in chicken farms in Australia, Finland and Denmark. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been warning about the risks for 18 years.

Yet unpublished figures compiled by the British Poultry Council (BPC) – which represents around 90% of the UK industry – reveal its members have increased their use of the drugs, using 1.126 tonnes of fluoroquinolones in 2014 compared with 0.71 tonnes the previous year.

The increase suggests it is likely that at least 20 million more chickens were given a dose of the antibiotics in 2014.

Chicken Burrah
Chicken Burrah

The Bureau’s revelations have prompted calls for fluoroquinolones to be immediately withdrawn from use in British poultry farms. There were also calls for an urgent review of the way in which antibiotic use on UK farms in general is regulated.

Coílín Nunan, scientific adviser with the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, said the “shocking and alarming” 59% rise was “likely to have real consequences for human health”.

He added: “The Government should ban all use of fluoroquinolones in poultry because we know resistance is transferring from chickens to humans. This is why the US banned fluoroquinolone use in poultry a decade ago.”

Labour’s shadow environment secretary Kerry McCarthy said: “Experts have long been warning that widespread antibiotic use in farming risks undermining their effectiveness in human medicine. These figures show that more needs to be done to reduce their use, given the increase in human resistance. Government and its regulators must now act fast to put the principles of ‘responsible use’ into practice.”

Antibiotics are widely used in livestock production to prevent and treat illnesses. While farmers say their use is vital for animal welfare, critics claim the drugs are often used to mask dirty, overcrowded conditions that can encourage the spread of disease.

The US Food and Drug Administration outlawed the use of fluoroquinolones in chicken farming in 2005 after resistance to the drugs was found to be developing in campylobacter samples in poultry flocks. Officials took the unprecedented step to prevent the spread of resistant strains to humans.

Campaigners have been calling on the UK authorities to follow suit for several years. They are also concerned about a lack of transparency about the level of usage on Britain’s farms. Although farmers are required to retain records of antibiotics administered to livestock, and vets should maintain details of antibiotic prescriptions issued, this data is not currently collated by the industry regulator, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD).

Tandoori-ChickenThe VMD, which is an agency in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, publishes overall sales data for veterinary antibiotics annually but not details of antibiotic usage. It means health officials have little idea of why – and in what quantities – the drugs are being used on individual farms.

In a statement to the Bureau, the VMD acknowledged current data collection around antibiotic use on farms could be improved, adding it is “a priority area of the VMD’s work on antimicrobial resistance”.

A spokesperson said: “The overuse of antibiotics in farming is a major issue worldwide, and we are working closely with countries across the world to monitor it so that we can take action. We must all work together to preserve the antibiotics that we have if we are to save modern medicine as we know it.”