Standards in the meat and poultry sectors are in the spotlight again after two undercover investigations revealed major food safety concerns.
The investigations, by The Guardian and Bureau of Investigative Journalism were described as “alarmist” by one senior meat sector source.
However, one of the probes found that more than 10% of 103 pork products sampled by Fera Sciences on behalf of investigation partner World Animal Protection were infected with bacteria showing resistance to a “last resort” antibiotic used to treat serious illnesses in humans.
The bug was found to be a variant of the enterococci bacteria that can cause a variety of illnesses including urinary tract and wound infections.
“This indicates that antibiotics are being overused in low-welfare farms to stop animals getting sick in poor conditions and exacerbating the world’s drug resistance crisis,” claimed Lindsay Duncan, farming campaigns manager at World Animal Protection.
“We’re calling on the UK government to end the routine use of antibiotics on farm animals, as the EU has recently done, and to acknowledge that a reduction in animal product consumption is needed to address the countless issues caused by factory farming.”
The other investigation found that test results obtained by the BoIJ and The Guardian revealed there had been a rise in salmonella infantis, with both raw and processed poultry products affected. The data they referred to included 310 samples of chicken products where five samples had salmonella, giving a prevalence of (1.6%).
But in response, the FSA urged caution around both claims and attempted to reassure consumers.
“The risk of people getting salmonella infections through handling and consuming contaminated meat is very low so long as good hygiene and cooking practices are followed,” said the regulator’s chief scientific advisor Robin May.
“Consumers should strictly follow the cooking instructions on the pack so that any bacteria present on the food – including those that are antimicrobial resistant – are destroyed.”
The watchdog was also clear that in the salmonella test results the investigation pointed to, the products were only particularly cooked and therefore treated as raw. It added that the survey showed that salmonella in breaded chicken products was killed when the cooking instructions were followed.
In regards to the antibiotic resistance levels found in pork, Cat McLaughlin, chair of the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance coalition (RUMA), said antibiotic use in food production had halved since 2014 and now accounted for less than 30% of the antibiotics used in the UK, despite over a billion farm animals being reared and managed in the UK each year.
“RUMA would emphasise that there has been an ongoing reduction in antibiotic use in the pig industry, and that the sector continues to encourage the responsible use of antibiotics based on the principle of as little as possible, but as much as necessary,” she said.
“We have more than halved our sales of veterinary antibiotics in the UK between 2014 and 2020 – moving us ahead of many other European countries,” said a Veterinary Medicines Directorate spokesman.
“We are committed to reducing unnecessary use of antibiotics in animals and it remains our intention to strengthen our national law in this area. We are currently reviewing the Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2013 and will set out proposed changes as part of a public consultation during 2022.”