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Above: The chicken we eat is often pumped with more than the permissible dose of antibiotics/Photo: Lembi Kh

As the global demand for meat increases, the use of antibiotics on animals for slaughter is also spiralling. Not labelling them as antibiotic-treated is fraud and a violation of fundamental rights 

By Dr KK Aggarwal

In livestock production, antibiotics are given to animals for a number of reasons—therapeutic treatment, disease prophylaxis and growth pro­motion. The administration of antibiotics to control or kill bacteria also leads to the emergence of antibiotic-resistance bacteria, which can spread from one organism to another. So the question arises: Does the use of antibiotics in animals pose a threat to human health? In particular, the worry is that the antibiotic-resistant bacteria may even spread from animals and/or the environment (groundwater/surface water/soil) to human beings.

India and China are among the major hotspots for anti-microbial resistance (AMR) in livestock. AMR is the ability of any microorganism and parasite to stop an anti-microbial (like antibiotics, etc) from working against it. Therefore, standard treatments are rendered ineffective, infections continue and may spread to others. According to a study done by the journal, Science, there is an increase in AMR in chickens and pigs.

Since 2000, meat production has plateaued in high-income countries but has grown by 68 per cent, 64 per cent and 40 per cent in Asia, Africa and South America, respectively. The transition to high-protein diets in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) has been facilitated by the global expansion of intensive animal production systems in which anti-microbials are used routinely to maintain health and productivity. Globally, 73 per cent of all anti-microbials sold are used in animals raised for food. A growing body of evidence has linked this to the rise of antimicrobial-resistant infections, not just in animals but also in humans.

The study identified 901-point surveys from LMICs reporting AMR rates in animals for common indicator pathogens, such as Escherichia coli, Campylobacter spp., nontyphoidal Salmonella spp., and Staphylococcus aureus. From 2000 to 2018, the proportion of anti-microbial compounds with resistance higher than 50 per cent (P50) increased from 0.15 to 0.41 in chickens and from 0.13 to 0.34 in pigs and plateaued between 0.12 and 0.23 in cattle.

Global maps of AMR show hotspots of resistance in north-eastern India, north-eastern China, northern Pakistan, Iran, eastern Turkey, the south coast of Brazil, Egypt, the Red River delta in Vietnam, and the areas surrounding Mexico City and Johannesburg. Resistance is just emerging in Kenya, Morocco, Uruguay, southern Brazil, central India, and southern China. Dense geographical coverage of point prevalence surveys did not systematically correlate with the presence of hotspots of AMR, such as in Ethiopia, Thailand, Chhattisgarh (India), and Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil). The highest resistance rates were observed with the most commonly used classes of anti-microbials in animal production—tetracyclines, sulphonamides and penicillin. The regions affected by the highest levels of AMR should take immediate action to preserve the efficacy of anti-microbials essential in human medicine by restricting their use in animal production.

In some middle-income countries, particularly South America, surveillance must be scaled up to match that of low-income African countries that are currently outperforming them despite more limited resources. Policymakers coordinating the international response to AMR may consider sparing African countries from the most aggressive measures to restrict access to veterinary drugs, which may undermine livestock-based economic development and rightfully be perceived as unfair. However, in regions where resistance is starting to emerge, there is a window of opportunity to limit the rise of resistance by encouraging a transition to sustainable animal farming practices.

High-income countries, where anti-microbials have been used on farms since the 1950s, should support this transition—for example, through a global fund to subsidise improvement in farm-level bio-safety and bio-security.

In India, antibiotics are used widely in food animals as growth promoters and to prevent and treat infection. Non-therapeutic use of antibiotics has been especially common in poultry production. However, there is no regulatory provision regarding the use of antibiotics in livestock.

Recognising that antibiotic resistance poses a serious health threat, the European Union (EU) has banned the use of growth-promoting antibiotics (especially those which are also used in human medicine) in animal feed. In December 1997, the EU banned the Animal Growth-Promoter (AGP) avoparcin in all its member states. Although the United States is yet to pass such a far-reaching policy decision about the use of antibiotics in livestock production, the Food & Drug Administration did ban one class of antibiotics used in poultry.

The Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules, 1995—part XVIII: Antibiotic and other Pharmacologically Active Substances regulates the use of antibiotics and other pharmacologically active substances. According to the Rules, the amount of antibiotics for sea foods, including shrimps, prawns or any other variety of fish and fishery products, shall not exceed the prescribed tolerance limit (mg/kg[ppm) as mentioned below:

(a) Tetracycline (0.1)

(b) Oxytetracycline (0.1)

(c) Trimethoprim (0.05)

(d) Oxolinic acid (0.3)

Further, the use of any of the following antibiotics and other pharmacologically active substances shall be prohibited in any unit processing sea foods: All Nitrofurans, Chloramphenicol, Neomycin, Nalidixic Acid, Sulphamethoxazole, Aristolochia spp. and preparations thereof, Chloroform, Chlorpromazine, Colchicine, Dapsone, Dimetridazole, Metronidazole, 38 Ronidazole, Ipronidazole, other Nitroimidazoles, Clenbuterol, Diethylstilbistrol, Sulphonamide drugs, Fluoroquinolones and Glycopeptides. India has established an inter-sectoral coordination committee to frame rules and regulations.

The only legal provisions in this regard applicable to animals are Sections 428 and 429, IPC. Section 428 which deals with mischief by killing or maiming animals of the value of Rs 10, says: “Whoever commits mischief by killing, poisoning, maiming or rendering useless any animal or animals of the value of ten rupees or upwards, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.” Section 429 which deals with mischief by killing or maiming cattle, etc., of any value or any animal of the value of Rs 50, says: “Whoever commits mischief by killing, poisoning, maiming or rendering useless, any elephant, camel, horse, mule, buffalo, bull, cow or ox, whatever may be the value thereof, or any other animal of the value of fifty rupees or upwards, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both.”

Giving unnecessary antibiotics knowing that it may cause anti-bacterial resistance is a matter of debate. But not labelling a livestock grown under the influence of antibiotics may be fraud and violation of fundamental rights.

—The writer is President, Confederation of Medical Associations of Asia and Oceania, and Heart Care Foundation of India

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