Health: Fried, roast, tandoori - or chicken a la penicillin?

Health Check
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WOULD YOU care for some antibiotics with your chicken? A little penicillin, perhaps, to plump up the breast, a sprinkling of tetracycline to bulk out the legs and a dash of quinolones to add a burst of extra growth?

You think I am joking? Indeed I am, for you have, I am afraid, no choice in the matter. Antibiotics are routinely used by farmers as growth-promoters and only those prepared to pay over the odds for an organic bird are likely to avoid them.

The Government's Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS) has been warning about this dubious practice for years. Ultimately it may pose a greater threat to human health than BSE and CJD, but the alarm bells rung by bacteriologists have so far fallen on deaf ears. The over-prescription of the drugs, especially as a result of the wholesale dosing of livestock, is now occurring on such a scale that, in the words of one expert, the planet is now bathed in a dilute solution of antibiotics.

Four years ago, scientists at the PHLS called for a ban on the use of quinolones, the newest class of antibiotics, in animals, to ensure that the most powerful drugs were reserved for human use. What had alarmed the boffins was the emergence of so-called "superbugs", resistant to most or all known antibiotics, and the rapid growth of resistant bacteria such as Salmonella typhimurium, cases of which have leapt during the Nineties.

Last week, the consequences of widespread quinolone use in animals were spelt out in a disturbing paper in the New England Journal of Medicine. Scientists in Minnesota reported a rising incidence of quinolone-resistant infections in patients and isolated quinolone-resistant bacteria from 13 of 91 chicken products bought in supermarkets.

It is worth spelling out exactly what this means. For those who got the quinolone-resistant infection - usually involving diarrhoea and/ or vomiting - the illness lasted 10 days, as compared with seven for those who got the non-resistant variety. Three extra days of diarrhoea, while inconvenient, doesn't sound so bad, you may think. But for vulnerable patients, with weak immune systems, a drug-resistant infection could be a death sentence. Indeed, shopping for chicken in Minnesota for anyone with, say, a kidney transplant, or undergoing treatment for HIV, must be akin to playing Russian roulette.

For these patients, one in six chicken products sold by supermarkets contains a potentially fatal poison. And for the rest of us, resistant bacteria pose a growing threat of illnesses that are likely to become progressively harder to treat.

In a leader, the journal leaves no doubts about the consequences for food safety. Increasing foreign travel and the internationalisation of the food trade make the use of antibiotics in food production "a public health issue of global dimensions", it says. Nearly all the antibiotics available for human use and several classes likely to become available in the future are already being used in animals, "creating a huge reservoir of resistant bacteria with the potential to spread to humans".

What can be done? One country is showing the way. Denmark used 205 tons of antibiotics in food animals in 1994. By 2000 that will have reduced to 50 tons - as a result of the combined effects of legislation, voluntary changes in farming practice and altered prescribing by vets. Apparently, the reduction has had no effect whatsoever on animal health and welfare, or on the income of the producers.

Unless the rest of the world follows Denmark's example, chicken may soon go the way of beef - condemned as unfit for human consumption. It would be nasty, as well as unnecessary, if we saw increasing outbreaks of killer diarrhoea in the West - and all for want of an antibiotic-free roast dinner.