Consumer organisations around the world are calling on major fast-food companies, McDonald’s, KFC and Subway, to make a global commitment to stop serving meat from animals raised with the routine use of antibiotics important to human medicine.
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The call for action coincides with World Consumer Rights Day, 15 March, which is highlighting the use of antibiotics in food production and the risks it presents to human health.
Consumer NZ chief executive Sue Chetwin says agricultural use of antibiotics in New Zealand is considered low by international standards but there’s no room for complacency. “Antibiotic resistance is a major threat to health and requires concerted action. The food industry has an important part to play.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) has called the growth of antibiotic resistance a global health crisis. The organisation has warned the world is heading for a post-antibiotic era where people could die from common infections that can no longer be treated.
Subway has made commitments in the US to source meat raised without any antibiotics starting from 2016. The company says it intends to follow suit in New Zealand although has not given any specific timeframes.
McDonald’s has made commitments to source chicken raised without the routine use of antibiotics in the US by 2017 and in Canada by 2018. No similar commitments have been made in New Zealand.
Consumers International says KFC has not set timeframes in any of the countries in which it operates.
Consumers International director general Amanda Long says global restaurant chains have an opportunity to use their huge buying power to reduce the use of antibiotics in food production and to set the agenda for other businesses.
Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria or other microbes are able to resist the effects of an antibiotic. The development of resistant bugs is a natural phenomenon but its pace is being accelerated by the overuse of antibiotics.
A growing number of infections, such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, are becoming harder to treat. As the number of resistant bacteria increase, the antibiotics used to treat these infections become less effective.
Antibiotics are used in animals to treat diseases and to prevent them from occurring. In New Zealand, most agricultural use of antibiotics is in the dairy, pig and poultry industries.
Latest available figures, published in a 2013 report by the Ministry for Primary Industries, show sales of antibiotics for agricultural use decreased by 19 percent between 2009 and 2011. However, sales of some antibiotics important for human medicine increased during this period.
The report found a rise in agricultural sales of third- and fourth-generation cephalosporins. These antibiotics are considered by WHO to be critically important for human health. It also found an increase in sales of tylosin, an antibiotic in the class known as macrolides, also critically important for human medicine.
An updated report on antibiotic sales and use is expected to be published by the ministry in the next few months.
Antibiotic use carries the risk that resistant bacteria will develop and spread from animals to humans through direct contact or consumption of contaminated products. Resistant bugs can also spread into the environment through animal excretion.
WHO has identified four classes of antibiotics as “Highest Priority Critically Important Antimicrobials”:
In May 2015, the World Health Assembly endorsed a Global Action Plan to tackle antibiotic resistance. The New Zealand Government has committed to deliver a national action plan on antibiotic resistance by May 2017. The lack of a government strategy has been a subject of ongoing criticism.
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