Antibiotic-resistant genes are being spread around the world in animal feed, according to new research that adds to fears humanity could lose one of our most important medicines.
A Government-commissioned report last year estimated 10 million people a year could die worldwide by 2050 because of the rise of “superbugs”, prompting the then Prime Minister David Cameron to announce a crackdown on over-prescribing by GPs and lead efforts to tackle the problem at the United Nations.
Bacteria resistant to the “last resort” antibiotic, colistin, was found in the UK in December 2015, following similar discoveries in parts of Europe, Africa and China.
The threat to human health has been compared to climate change and nuclear war.
There has been concern about antibiotics given to livestock for some time with the European Union banning farmers from using it as growth promoter.
And the new research, by scientists at Dalian University of Technology in China, found another source of the problem related to food production: antibiotic-resistant genes in fishmeal, meat-and-bone meal and chicken meal.
The scientists said fishmeal – “one of the most globally traded commodities” – was serving as “a vehicle to promote antibiotic-resistant gene dissemination internationally”.
This could help explain why resistant bacteria have been showing up in unexpected places around the world such as isolated caves and ancient permafrost.
“Our study implies that long-term and repeated feeding with fishmeal may accelerate the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and even pathogens …,” the researchers wrote in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
They said it appeared fishmeal had “a previously underestimated impact” on antibiotic resistance in sediment beneath fish farms, something that had been largely attributed to the use of drugs on the stock.
“In addition to mariculture production, fishmeal is also widely used in livestock, inland aquaculture, or organic fertiliser, and therefore the residual fishmeal in related ecosystems deserves more attention with respect to its impact on the bacteria resistome, even in the absence of prophylactic or therapeutic antibiotic use,” the scientists wrote.
They called for more research into whether the problem could “transfer from ‘farm to fork’ and threaten the safety of food animals and consumers”.
Antibiotic-resistant genes were found in commercially available fishmeal and animal protein products from China, Peru, Russia, Chile, Australia and the US.
The discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin, in the 1920s was one of the greatest ever medical breakthroughs and made Sir Alexander Fleming an international hero, although Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and colleagues at Oxford University actually turned it into a life-saving drug.
Previously a small cut in the garden could prove fatal if it became infected, but antibiotics provided a simple and highly effective treatment. Penicillin was also the first cure for syphilis.
Without antibiotics, major surgery, such as caesarean sections, hip replacements and organ transplants, and cancer chemotherapy could all become “very high risk”, according to the World Health Organisation.
Kevin Hollinrake, a Conservative MP who has spoken out about the dangers of antibiotic resistance, urged the Government to continue its emphasis on the issue despite the understandable distractions of Brexit.
“We cannot afford to let this take a back seat. It’s up there with global warming and with nuclear apocalypse … it’s of that order,” he told The Independent.
“The longer we leave it, the more difficult it’s going to be to address the problem.”
He said it should be seen as “the new Black Death”, a plague which killed millions of people in the 14th century, given the findings of the 2016 report by economist Lord Jim O’Neill.
Mr Hollinrake said the research showed the need for international action, given that antibiotic resistance was being spread by “lots of different mechanisms”.
“The amount of antibiotics used in agriculture – we do need to tackle that,” he said.
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