I have previously discussed the severe risks of "antibiotic armageddon". Unfortunately, that day seems ever closer.
The findings of a new study into retail pork, revealed today in the Guardian on 18th June, could pose a significant threat to ongoing efforts to win the fight against antibiotic resistance.
Commissioned by the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, of which my organisation, Compassion in World Farming, is a founding member and funded by the A team Foundation, the study tested British pork meat bought from British supermarkets.
The results are in - and with samples testing positive for the superbug MRSA - the news is concerning to say the least.
This is the first time MRSA of livestock origin has been found in British pig meat. The findings indicate that British consumers are already being exposed to MRSA in retail meat, with a person eating pork twice a week likely to be exposed to contaminated meat once every three months.
Across the UK, medical and health professionals, supermarkets, policy-makers, farmers, NGOs, scientists and the public will now be voicing their concerns. The implications of the findings will be thoroughly discussed and debated; some downplaying, others catastrophising.
Whilst most EU countries have carried out their own national surveys to directly test pigs, the UK has for years declined to carry out national monitoring of pigs, (with the exception of an EU survey in 2008, which tested dust samples on pig farms). This means that detailed information is in short supply, and making trends tricky to predict. But a look at other European countries gives us an idea of how things may evolve.
And this shows an alarming precedent. In the Netherlands, once MRSA was established in the pig herd, it spread with alarming alacrity. The Netherlands has since implemented strict reductions in on-farm use, meaning that the UK levels of antibiotic use in pigs and poultry are now at least 3.5 times more than Dutch levels. In short, it is very likely that MRSA will spread quickly throughout the UK pig herd, and retail pork.
What is MRSA, and how did it get into our meat?
MRSA is often referred to as a superbug; bacteria that has developed resistance to nearly all penicillin-type antibiotics. Whilst animals or people may carry the bacteria harmlessly, if MRSA enters the system it can cause blood poisoning, pneumonia and heart infections. Resistance makes MRSA more difficult to treat, and therefore more dangerous, than non-resistant strains.
Whilst the emergence of drug-resistant strains of bacteria is a natural phenomenon, overuse of antibiotics speeds up this process; killing off sensitive bacteria whilst resistant organisms survive exposure. This process is happening, not only in humans, but within the animals which become the meat we consume.
A staggering 40-42% of the antibiotics we use in the UK are used in animals, including use of drugs deemed critically important for humans. Over 88% of farm antibiotic use is for mass medication, and it remains legal to give antibiotics to groups of animals when no disease has been diagnosed.
This approach to disease control is not only enabling the continuation of low-welfare, intensive farming practices, but is fuelling the emergence of bacteria which resist the drugs thrown at them. These bacteria then do what they do best: multiply and spread.
MRSA bacteria can be passed to humans through direct contact with animals or raw meat, or through the environment. Worryingly, several European countries report increasing cases of MRSA occurring in people with no direct contact with pigs.
Three steps to save our antibiotics
We need radical change of antibiotic usage in our farming systems. If we take the right steps, it is possible to slow or reverse resistance. In the Netherlands, there has been a reduction in farm use of antibiotics of over 60% since 2007, and number of human cases of MRSA is falling.
The Alliance to Save our Antibiotics is calling on the UK Government to take three steps which mirror measures taken in other EU countries:
1. Set targets to cut farm antibiotic use by 50% by 2020 and 80% by 2025, including reduction of "critically important" antibiotics
2. Ban all preventative mass medication in feed or water, except for where disease is identified by a vet in some of the animals
3. Improve surveillance data on the human health impacts of antibiotic resistance
We now have a choice. We can carry on with the business-as-usual practices which are propelling us closer towards the "antibiotic armageddon" predicted by experts across the world. Or we can use these findings as a warning signal, and act to conserve our drugs for treatment of sick humans and animals. Let's hope we do the right thing - our lives may depend on it.