It's been claimed that chicken consumption kills about 280 Britons annually through blood poisoning attributable to ESBL (extended spectrum beta lactamase) E. coli. These deadly infections are the result of antibiotic use in chicken production, which has made the E. coli highly antibiotic-resistant. The annual death toll across the European Union is estimated at 1,519.
In addition to the lethal outcomes, there are 1,580 chicken-related ESBL E. coli infections in the U.K. every year and they account for an extra 12,500 days in hospital, where patients are treated with antibiotics of last resort, Farming UK reported. Across the European Union, 8,502 cases of blood-poisoning are recorded every year as a result of chicken consumption.
These figures come from a study conducted by an international research team that drew on data from a Dutch study. Through the use of genetic fingerprinting, the Dutch scientists found that 56% of ESBL resistance genes in human E. coli were identical to genes identified in E. coli from chicken sold in supermarkets. The antibiotic resistance of the ESBL E. coli stems from the use of third-generation cephalosporins in poultry production. The World Health Organization has classified these antibiotics as "critically important in human medicine" but they are no longer effective in treating ESBL E. coli blood poisoning because of their use on farms. According to the international team, the use of third-generation cephalosporin in food animals is responsible for a "staggering" number of avoidable deaths and the potential healthcare costs are massive. The scientists have called for urgent action on a global scale to restrict the use of cephalosporins in all food animals.
As Farming UK notes, this is something the Soil Association has been campaigning for since 2006. The study is limited to one type of antibiotic, one bacterium and one type of animal, namely broiler chickens. But this type of antibiotics is employed in pig production and dairy farming as well and similar concerns have also been raised by the use of several other antibiotics on farms. Richard Young, policy adviser at the Soil Association, said that the study showed the consequences of excessive antibiotic use in intensive livestock farming, as well as the financial toll on the NHS.
In response to the study report, the British Poultry Council (BPC) and RUMA (Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture) came out with a joint statement criticizing the methodology used, Farmers Guardian said in its article on the issue. They noted that the researchers had extrapolated the Dutch findings without taking into account the extent to which other countries used these antibiotics in food animals. In the U.K., for example, poultry producers no longer use any cephalosporins in breeding and have never used them in flocks for meat production. Still, the BPC and RUMA acknowledged that antibiotic resistance had turned into a global challenge and that a concerted effort was required to promote responsible use of antibiotics in farming and human medicine. This is a complex issue and has to be addressed jointly. All stakeholders must work together, grounding decisions in sound science. In this way, it will be possible to manage risks without stifling the benefits of antibiotic use in the treatment of people and animals, the two organizations said.