Chicken consumption in the UK could suffer a temporary setback after a BBC report indicates chicken are highly contaminated with antibiotic resistant E. coli bacteria.
However the report was criticised as being inaccurate and unscientific by the country's Health Protection Agency and as "irresponsible" by the British Poultry Council. Whether thecriticisms act as a counterbalance to an alarming media report and mitigate any effect on eating habits, is still uncertain.
European consumers are increasing concerned about food safety, mainly due to the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) scare in cattle, a foot and mouth disease outbreak in 2001 and avian flu in2003. Chicken is the main source of food poisoning in Europe.
UK consumers eat almost twice as much poultry as beef every year and consumption continues to grow, according to the country's industry association. In the EU poultry consumption overtook beef andveal in 1996, when BSE hit the headlines.
The BBC1 report this week follows an announcement by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which said it would launch a food safety programme to cutdown on the 76 per cent rate of Campylobacter infection in UK-raised chickens. The FSA wants to halve the rate by 2010.
The BBC investigation found that about half the British chickens contained antibiotic-resistant E.coli. The BBC found the E.coli was resistant to the antibiotic Trimethaprim, which is used to treatbladder infections. Health Protection Agency scientists who tested the meat found 12 of the chickens had antibiotic resistant Campylobacter.
"There are concerns these types of bacteria could make infections in humans more difficult to treat," the BBC1 television stated in a report..
The Health Protection Agency said the testing carried out for the BBC was similar to previous studies and did not highlight any new areas ofconcern.
"Using these results the programme has continued to assert various links between the use of antibiotics in farming, levels of resistant bacteria found in the chicken samples and humanillness," the agency stated. "The science is not there to prove some of these assumptions and therefore the HPA does not support them."
The agency acted as an advisor to the BBC on the making of the programme. One of the agency's laboratories carried out the testing for levels of antibiotic resistant bacteria found in chicken. Theagency also provided a number of briefings and interviews with its scientists.
The agency added: "The development of antibiotic resistance is an inevitable consequence of the use of antibiotics in both animals and humans. Stopping using antibiotics is not feasible ina world where people and animals continue to contract infections, and would result in unacceptable suffering. Nevertheless the careful use of antibiotics is key in controlling levels of resistance andthe HPA would emphasise that unnecessary antibiotic use should be avoided in both humans and animals."
The British Poultry Council , an industry association, stated its members voluntarily stopped using all antibiotic growth promoters threeyears ago. Antibiotics are used only under prescription from a poultry veterinarian.
The BBC survey sample was too small and differed from the results produced by studies on antibiotic resistance undertaken by the Veterinary Laboratory Agency in all food producing animals, theassociation stated.
"To use the results of this small and questionable survey instead of existing, more comprehensive, soundly based and scientifically reviewed studies of antibiotic resistance across all foodanimal species, would be irresponsible," the association stated.
Chicken is mainly affected by E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter. Of the three, E. coli and Salmonella are much more dangerous to human health.
Escherichia coli, is normally found as a beneficial organism living in the intestinal tracts of humans and other warm-blooded animals. However when eaten in undercooked food it is a sign of fecalcontamination and can cause bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps and in extreme cases kidney failure.
When the FSA was formed it set a target to reduce Salmonella in UK-produced chicken by 50 per cent by 2006. A recent FSA survey of retail chicken showed that about six per cent of chickens werecontaminated with Salmonella, compared with the 20 per cent or greater rates of contamination found in earlier surveys.
A series of FSA's surveys between 2001 and 2004 showed that between 42 per cent and 76 per cent of retail chickens were contaminated with Campylobacter depending on the region. The highest rate wasfound in Northern Ireland and the lowest in Wales.
Other available data shows that Campylobacter levels in the UK flock have remained fairly constant, perhaps with a slight reduction, over recent years, the FSA stated.
From January 2006 processing plants will be sampling neck skins and testing for Salmonella to comply with the microbiological criteria regulations. The regulator also proposes testing the samplesfor Campylobacter as a measure of progress towards the target.