A major supplier of chicken to UK supermarkets is sourcing birds dosed with antibiotics ‘critical to human health’, a new investigation has found amid growing concerns over the spread of deadly superbugs.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) has discovered that Polish meat company SuperDrob, which sells frozen poultry products to Lidl, Asda and Iceland, sources its chicken from farms that use fluoroquinolone antibiotics, classified as “of critical importance to human health” by the World Health Organization (WHO). Fluoroquinolones are often used to treat serious salmonella infections in humans.
Giving animals antibiotics is coming under increasing scrutiny as scientists point to the risks of potentially deadly bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics, which means the drugs may no longer work for them. treat human infections. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria – known as “superbugs” – pose a growing threat to human health, leading to an estimated 1.2 million deaths worldwide in 2019.
There are growing concerns that farmers who feed these critically important antibiotics to their animals are contributing to the problem. To reduce the risk of superbug outbreaks, the EU tightened laws on the use of antibiotics on farms last year.
Yet it appears that the use of drugs critical to human health on farms in Poland, Europe’s largest producer of poultry meat, has exploded in recent years. Sales of fluoroquinolones have increased by more than 70% in the country. The data shows even greater increases in sales of colistin, a drug of last resort used to treat serious infections that have not responded to other drugs. The WHO classifies both as critically important to human health.
SuperDrob is one of Poland’s leading poultry producers and more than 50% of its income comes from export. Three sources, including a farmer who supplies chicken to SuperDrob and a veterinarian who supplies farms, confirmed that fluoroquinolone antibiotics were being used, according to interviews conducted by BIJ. There’s nothing illegal about this, but tests by the BIJ, overseen by an academic from the University of Oxford, in May found bacteria resistant to fluoroquinolones in waste samples collected from a certain number of Polish poultry farms that allegedly supplied SuperDrob.
SuperDrob said the drugs were used, but had firm policies in place to ensure they were only used when warranted. He said: “When there is a veterinary need for medical treatment, it is used under the supervision of veterinarians.” The company also said it is reducing the use of fluoroquinolone antibiotics and phasing them out by 2025.
Tim Walsh, professor of medical microbiology at the University of Oxford, said he believed there had been a failure at EU level to monitor antibiotic use in Poland, and that the rise skyrocketing sales of high-priority antibiotics in the country should have sounded the alarm.
But the European Commission said measures taken in Poland since a salmonella outbreak in the UK in 2020, including improved biosecurity on farms and better hygiene in meat factories, had led to a reduction in salmonella contamination.
Although fluoroquinolone antibiotics are legal to use on chicken farms in the UK and EU under veterinary supervision, their use is now tightly controlled by regulatory authorities and their preventive use in healthy animals is not authorized. SuperDrob said its policies do not allow the use of antibiotics for prophylaxis and such behavior is also prohibited for SuperDrob’s suppliers.
The Polish Chief Veterinary Inspectorate said the prophylactic – or preventive – use of antibiotics was not common practice in Poland.