Chicken comes home to roost

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

What should I eat now? Is there nothing that is safe?” This is what I am asked every time the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) does a study on toxins in food. It is a fact that our food is becoming unhealthy—not because of deliberate adulteration but because we are choosing to produce it in unsafe ways. India is at the beginning of industrial food production focused on efficiency and profits, and not on consumer safety, so it still has a choice to get it right. Why should the country not exercise its right to food that secures livelihoods and nutrition?

imageThis time CSE has looked at antibiotics in chicken. Its laboratory bought 70 samples of chicken from different markets across the National Capital Region. It analysed each animal for six antibiotics: oxytetracycline, chlortetracycline and doxycycline (class tetracyclines);enrofloxacin and ciprofloxacin (class fluoroquinolones) and neomycin, an aminoglycoside. All these antibiotics are critical for humans. These are the same medicines we are prescribed when we are taken ill. These are life-saving drugs.

Today we know antibiotic resistance is almost a health pandemic. It is said that humans are headed towards a post-antibiotic era, where these miracle medicines will not work. No new class of antibiotics has been discovered for the past 20-odd years, so what we have is what we should keep for critical treatment. It is well known that resistance is growing because of our overexposure to antibiotics. A drug is no longer effective for treatment when microbes become resistant to it.

But we do not realise that our overexposure to antibiotics is also growing because of the food we eat. This food has been grown by serving it antibiotics. This is what CSE found in the chicken samples. Of the 70 samples, 40 per cent—every second chicken tested—had antibiotic residues and 17 per cent of the samples had more than one antibiotic present in the muscle, kidney or liver.

There is a link between the antibiotics found in chicken and the problem of antibiotic resistance in humans. In India, 13 studies done in various hospitals have found evidence of resistance to the same antibiotics CSE found in chicken. This is not a coincidence. It is a deadly fact.

Should we then stop eating chicken? Or should we insist that poultry is produced without antibiotics?

The poultry industry uses antibiotics not to treat the diseased chicken. It uses antibiotics because it is worried that chickens will get diseased. They are bred in overcrowded and often highly unsanitary conditions, so chicken farmers pump antibiotics in the water birds drink to prevent any outbreak. Their need to use antibiotics comes from the method they have chosen to produce food.

This is not all. The poultry industry also uses antibiotics for profit. When the chicken is given antibiotics-laced feed, it puts on weight. Farmers, therefore, buy antibiotics in bulk and mix them in chicken feed. Or they buy the pre-mix feed made by the big poultry. It includes antibiotics and its label claims it will promote growth in broiler chicken.

And why not? There is no regulation against the use of antibiotics in chicken. At best, the government has issued weak and inconsequential guidelines for “judicious” use of antibiotics in animals. The Bureau of Indian Standards specification for poultry feed does say that antibiotics should not be used as growth promoters, but it is not mandatory.

This is where we need to choose the direction of future policy—the way we will produce food and regulate safety. There are three options before us. One, that we follow the US, which has not yet regulated the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in its industry. Instead, it has set limits for antibiotic residues that can be present at different levels in different parts of the chicken—kidney, liver or muscle. Or we can follow Denmark, Sweden and some others who restrict and even ban the use of certain antibiotics in animals. Or we can find another approach, even better for health and livelihoods. Let us discuss this.

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  • This antibiotics menace is

    This antibiotics menace is something that has to be addressed urgently especially when there is a lot of effort being taken to stop antibiotic resistance. This issue of using antibiotics in animal production is largely ignored in India.. There are only two ways to control this issue i) regular monitoring of of these antibiotics and other agrochemical residues and implement legal policies to avoid those drugs ii) preventive control by promoting organic farming ways instead of industrial agriculture like in the west.

    A strong question comes to my mind.. There are more than 100 FSSAI labs in India and why they are not monitoring these antibiotics and other drugs like hormones and pesticides in a regular basis ?? Does these labs have mass specs and adequate personnel ? I suppose a lot of money has been allocated for upgrading these public labs.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Stopping antibiotics to

    Stopping antibiotics to animals will start spreading diseases within the human through animals. The limit of antibiotics should be fixed by CSE which should be monitored by FSSI Labs.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Eating lower on the chain is

    Eating lower on the chain is always healthy and cruelty free- As we sow, so shall we reap.

    Vegetarianism helps the planet and our health too..

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Ms. Sunita Narain: Thank

    Dear Ms. Sunita Narain:

    Thank you very much for raising an important issue. I agree with the issue raised in principle; however I would call your article ÔÇ£a half cooked chickenÔÇØ because clarity on following points was completely missing.

    1) Were the samples taken of raw chicken or cooked chicken?

    2) If it was raw chicken, why were samples of cooked chicken not taken for the comparison sake!

    3) Were all the samples of chicken from Indian poultry?

    4) If answer to point number 3 is yes, why were samples of imported chicken not taken for comparison sake!

    Based on incomplete analysis and cosmetic research, it would not be wise to label government guidelines weak and inconsequential. That is not fair, especially coming from you!!

    Sincerely yours

    K D Bhardwaj

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply