Retailers move to reassure consumers over chicken safety after drug seizure

The Guardian 2 weeks ago

Retailers and the poultry industry have attempted to reassure consumers on the safety of chicken, after a seizure of Chinese antibiotics suspected to be destined for unregulated use on a poultry farm in Northern Ireland.

The County Tyrone farm suspected of trying to source the antibiotics is now at the centre of an investigation by the Northern Ireland Department of Health. It sends chickens to the processing company Moy Park, a major supplier to UK retailers including Tesco, Ocado and Sainsbury’s.

Investigators have not confirmed publicly whether this is an isolated incident or whether poultry containing antibiotic residues has been entering the retail food chain for an extended period.

The antibiotic seized is believed to have been amoxicillin, which is approved for use as a veterinary medicine in the UK, but is supposed to be administered only under veterinary supervision. It may not be used as a growth promoter, a practice banned in the EU since 2006. The widespread use of antibiotics in farming is leading to the development of germs that are resistant to even the strongest antibiotics used in human health.

Food industry analysts said the financial incentives to use low doses of antibiotics as a way of boosting growth rates were enormous.

“If you administer growth-promoting antibiotics and get a 10% reduction in feed costs, that is a substantial boost to your profit margin. It’s also unfair competition to honest farmers and a risk to public health through the development of germs that are resistant to antibiotics,” said Erik Millstone, professor of science policy at the University of Sussex.

A spokesperson for the British Poultry Council, of which Moy Park is a member, said consumers could be reassured that antibiotic residues would not be present in chicken meat.

“The UK has an effective statutory veterinary residue surveillance scheme in accordance with EC legislation. There are strict regulations governing withdrawal period (how much time passes between when an animal is last treated with antibiotics and when it leaves the farm) that ensures that there are no residues in the meat,” said the spokesperson.

It is understood that steps have been taken to ensure that the chickens at the farm at the centre of the investigation will not enter the food chain. Moy Park also said in a statement that the poultry industry in Northern Ireland was subject to a testing programme by government vets. “All test results across our supply farms have been negative,” said a spokesperson.

However, there are concerns that the antibiotics seizure is a warning sign over checks on goods moving between mainland Britain, Northern Ireland and Ireland, and the safety of food supplies after the UK leaves the EU.

Post-Brexit, the UK will no longer be part of the EU’s unified system of controls and checks, including the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed for reporting food safety issues within the EU.

“This sort of criminal activity, whether the illicit use of antibiotics or food potentially harmful to people, is still a very real issue,” said Gary McFarlane, director of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health in Northern Ireland. “And that’s why, across Europe, we have the best possible solutions to combat that. Once we leave the EU we need to find new arrangements and solutions to maintain that same level of public protection. And that means appropriate controls and checks on foods entering the UK, because we will no longer be part of the European-wide system.

“If we don’t address this, then in my view we would be leaving the UK public exposed to an unacceptable level of risk. If we leave the borders ‘open’ it will make it much easier for criminals to send illegal food across them. And in certain cases that could threaten public health.”

A spokesperson from the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (Ruma) Alliance said UK farmers and vets had almost halved antibiotic use since 2013 and now had some of the lowest use in Europe.

“They have worked transparently with the Veterinary Medicines Directorate while doing thi,s and have achieved change responsibly through improving animal health and welfare as well as facilities and biosecurity. We are encouraged that at the same time as these reductions are happening at farm level, antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in farm animal surveillance are staying static or starting to fall,” said the spokesperson.

Elizabeth Andoh-Kesson, a food policy adviser at the British Retail Consortium, which represents a number of UK supermarkets, said: “BRC members work closely with farmers and suppliers and advocate the principles set by Ruma to ensure antibiotics are responsibly used in food production. Suppliers must follow all legal requirements on the acceptable use of antibiotics, balancing animal welfare with the reduction and refinement of antibiotic use in UK agriculture.”

A spokesperson for Tesco said: “All our UK chicken suppliers meet the strict legal requirements on antibiotic residues, and we are working closely with our suppliers to reduce antibiotic use across our supply chain without compromising on animal welfare.”

Sainsbury’s deferred to Moy Park’s statement, but added that it also ran routine tests on antibiotic residues. Ocado said it did not wish to add anything beyond the BRC statement.

A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Department of health said: “These matters form part of an ongoing multi-agency investigation led by the Department of Health’s medicines regulatory group in pursuance of offences under the Human Medicines Regulations 2012 and the Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2013. Daera, under its statutory role in the surveillance and sampling for veterinary medicine residues in food producing animals, is providing assistance to the investigation. As this case is ongoing the department cannot comment further at this time.”

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