A fresh report from the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) indicates that there are ever-higher levels of aggressive, antibiotic-resistant bacteria in broiler meat sold in the EU. This first pan-European study is based on samples from 2016.
For instance coli bacteria, which are usually harmless or even beneficial when found in humans’ or animals’ intestines, can cause infections when they appear elsewhere. These can usually be cleared up with antibiotics – but some bacteria can also defend themselves by breaking down antibiotics into a harmless form, using ESBL enzymes.
“E. coli bacteria are normal microbes in our digestive system, but in certain conditions they can also cause serious infections. And when they have the ESBL ability, then drugs are not effective,” says Dr Annamari Heikinheimo, a researcher and lecturer in food hygiene at the University of Helsinki.
More than half of EU broiler affected
The incidence of coli bacteria that can produce ESBL or the similar AmpC enzymes in broiler meat varies greatly within the EU. According to the new EFSA study, Finland had the lowest incidence of these bacteria in chicken, found in 22 percent of samples. In Belgium, they were found in virtually all broiler meat. The EU average is 57 percent.
“When you look more closely at the range of bacterial enzymes, it is often much broader in southern and central Europe than in Finland,” says Heikinheimo. “In our broiler bacteria, you primarily find a type of enzyme that to my knowledge is rare in human ESBL infections in Finland.”
According to Heikinheimo, the data reflects Finland’s extremely high level of food hygiene, which is the result of long-term cooperation, she says.
“In Finland, officials, researchers and companies interact closely. Since we’re a small country, I would hope that this cooperation continues. I’ve monitored many other countries where the situation is not like this,” she tells Yle.
Heikinheimo takes salmonella as an example. When Finland joined the EU in 1995, it was granted a special exemption for its own anti-salmonella legislation.
“The incidence of salmonella on Finnish farms is less than one percent,” the researcher says. “When you don’t have salmonella, you also don’t have the problem of resistant salmonella. The EFSA report notes that people elsewhere in Europe have very difficult salmonella-related infections that generally can no longer be treated effectively with antibiotics.”
ESBL chicks from abroad
Still, 22 percent is more than one-fifth of the chicken consumed in Finland. Why has ESBL proliferated particularly among poultry? Heikinheimo says there are no clear answers yet, but that suspicions focus on how the animals are bred.
“Animal breeding is very international nowadays. We don’t have any control over how antibiotics are used in countries at the other end of the food chain. There are suspicions that the ESBL comes from the parent generation of chicks that are hatched and raised in Finland,” she explains.
The proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in chicken is an indicator of the vast global problem of over-use of antibiotics.
“There are predictions that by 2050, 10 million people could die annually of infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, if current trends continue. This is a phenomenon comparable to climate change,” Heikinheimo says.
Superbugs thrive at hospitals
Resistant bacteria are particularly a problem in hospitals, where they are known as superbugs.
“The bigger the volume and range of antibiotics used for humans and animals, the stronger the ones that survive are. And that’s why we see them in hospitals.”
After the first antibiotic, penicillin, was invented by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming in the late 1920s, there were hopes that bacterial illnesses could be eliminated. Instead, over-use of the drugs has turned against mankind. One key reason has been the addition of antibiotics to animal fodder, which was found to boost livestock growth.
Finland banned such use in the 1990s, followed by the EU in 2005. Worldwide, though, the problem has not been brought under control, nor has the over-prescription of such medications for humans.
“Within the EU, the Nordic countries are the most moderate users of antibiotics. There are hundred-fold differences between some EU countries, says Heikinheimo.
New discoveries around the corner?
“We have to make sure that antibiotics don’t end up in nature, where they can create resistance in environmental bacteria,” stresses Heikinheimo. “The UN has finally woken up to the fact that such antibiotics must be seen as environmental pollution.”
Although the decline in the effectiveness of antibiotics is one of the greatest health risks facing humanity, she remains hopeful.
“If you think of Fleming, he certainly didn’t know when he came in to work one day that he would find fungus in a jar and use it to develop penicillin. New discoveries may be just around the corner,” she says.