The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) says that the growing use of antimicrobial agents in food could be damaging human resistance to bacteria and other microbes.
In a report published on Thursday by EFSA's panel on biological hazards (Biohaz), the agency suggests that more needs to be done to ensure that the food we eat does not become a "carrier" for antimicrobial-resistant agents which could leave the body open to health risks.
"Antimicrobial resistance cannot be predicted - it comes from the mutation of existing bacteria - so what we are saying is that we need to keep a close eye on this issue and make sure that all the potential entry points into the food chain for such resistant bacteria are controlled," Alun Jones, senior spokesman for EFSA, told FoodProductionDaily.com.
"This is a job not only for EFSA but for all stakeholders - including the European Commission and national food safety authorities who are the risk managers in this case."
Resistance to antibacterials in animals is rising, meaning that the risk of animal-based food becoming contaminated is higher. At the same time, antimicrobials are also becoming less effective in fighting human infections.
But Jones stressed that there was not necessarily a direct risk from increasing antimicrobial resistance in animals.
"This is not a case of one and one making two, necessarily. Just because bacteria in animals are becoming more resistant to antimicrobials does not mean that they will react the same way in humans - but there is the potential there that that will happen."
He said that EFSA's report had highlighted the cases of Salmonella and Campylobacter in particular, since these are mostly spread through food and are becoming increasingly resistant to the current antibiotic treatments. However, other bacteria such as MRSA, which have not traditionally been viewed as a food-based risk, may also be an "emerging problem".
MRSA - the so-called superbug - is highly resistant to most forms of antimicrobials, and has been responsible for several deaths in hospitals. EFSA has only identified one case of food-borne MRSA leading to human contamination but warns that it could be a problem in the future as the bug has been found in food products in the past.
"Our report is not saying that there is a major risk or threat to public health from antimicrobial-resistant bacteria at the moment," said Jones. "But it does urge food safety authorities and the food industry to look closely at the various ways in which such bacteria could enter the food chain and to do their utmost to control them."
Poor hygiene, he suggested, was probably the most likely means of transfer. "Keeping food clean and safe through the application of good HACCP principles is likely to be the best way of stopping food products being contaminated accidentally by resistant bacteria," he said.
But he noted that the EU had already taken action to reduce the risk of contamination by stopping the addition of antimicrobials to animal feed, which it was thought was accelerating the rate of resistance in animals destined for the food chains.
"The problem is that antimicrobials are necessary for vets to treat animals, so we cannot eliminate them entirely," said Jones. "That is why being vigilant is so important."
Another potential carrier highlighted in the report is bacteria that is deliberately added to food, such as fermentation cultures or probiotics.
These "have on occasion exhibited antimicrobial resistance and should also be considered as a possible route for the transfer of antimicrobial resistance through food", EFSA said.
EFSA's scientists have called for consultation with the wider food science community to assess the current state of play on tackling this issue, but Jones said there was "no black or white solution" to the potential problem.
"We need to continue to work on risk assessment with other stakeholders and take a step-by-step approach to this. When you drive a car, you take precautions to ensure that the journey is safe - and we need to take the necessary precautions here to ensure that the food we eat is safe."