HK must do its job on antibiotics vigilance

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 October, 2009, 12:00am

Most of the world's antibiotics are given to animals, not people. The food industry long ago found that putting these drugs in poultry and livestock feed minimised disease and sped up growth. Just as with humans, misuse has created strains of bacteria that are resistant to treatment. The result is that killer germs are lurking in the food chain.

Antibiotic-resistant E coli has been found in all but a handful of human and animal waste samples tested by University of Hong Kong researchers. US studies show that the bacteria can spread to vegetables through water systems. The US' National Academy of Sciences has found 'a link between the use of antibiotics and animal feed and the development of bacterial resistance to these drugs and human disease'.

Despite such evidence, our government is among the many taking limited action. The fear is that drug-resistant E coli could cause serious infections in humans who ingest these organisms in meat that has not been safely prepared.

Authorities say that there is no threat of infection if food is properly cooked. They contend regular farm inspections will ensure antibiotics are properly used. Local farmers say that they are not using the drugs to promote animal growth, but such assertions are at odds with the test results.

Modern intensive farming practices ensure the availability of affordable produce. Additives to animal feed can improve quality and safety.

Antibiotics were designed for treating human infections, but their use for raising livestock has proliferated. Huge amounts - in the US, as much as 70 per cent of all antibiotics produced - are mixed into cattle, pig and poultry feed to promote growth and offset unhealthy living conditions and unnatural diets.

Controls at every stage of the food chain are necessary to ensure that pesticides, veterinary drugs and food additives are being safely and properly used. The World Health Organisation recommends pre-market review and approval followed by continuous monitoring.

Four antibiotics used to treat human infections but taken up by the livestock industry to raise animal growth rates were banned by Sweden in 1986, Denmark in 1998 and the European Union in 1999. Efforts for similar legislation in the US have been flummoxed since 1977 by powerful farm and food lobby groups.

Most of Hong Kong's fresh food comes from approved farms on the mainland. Raising and growing standards have to be met, but it is obviously less easy to carry out unscheduled inspections for improper use of antibiotics in animal feed across the border than in Hong Kong.

While continuing to educate consumers about the need to cook food thoroughly, local authorities should begin random testing of samples from mainland farms for antibiotic-resistant bacteria as soon as possible.

There may be an added cost, but it is a small price to pay to ascertain the potential health risks. Hong Kong should play its part in ensuring that antibiotics continue to protect us from infections.