Health & Environment

Antibiotics Tainted Food: Safe to Eat?

by Connie Fong & Cecilia Wong

A ntibiotics were once seen as the miracle drug that saved lives. But today an expert calls for an antibiotics free period before animals are slaughtered due to years of abuse.

"A withholding period during which livestock are not fed any antibiotics for 10-14 days before they go through food processing should be implemented," said Professor P. Reichel, Dean and Chair Professor of School of Veterinary Medicine, City University of Hong Kong.

The World Health Organization, which recently organized the World Antibiotics Resistance Awareness Week, warned of a looming post-antibiotic era in which common infections and minor injuries may once again kill.

"The concern of a post-antibiotic era is that we will eventually run out of effective antibiotics to treat diseases," said Prof Reichel.

Medical researchers suggest that the Hong Kong government should ensure that antibiotics in food production are used in "the most effective and responsible manner".

He explained that excessive use of antibiotics in animal feed have led to humans developing resistance to the drugs.

"Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been increasing dramatically and their resistant genes are transferred to other bacteria," said Dr Albert Yu, Chairman of the Hong Kong Biotechnology Organization.

"The media (of spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria) can be anything. We cannot get rid of the infection and we will run out of drugs," Dr Yu said.

Around half of the antibiotics produced globally are used in agriculture, most of it used to promote growth and prevent illnesses rather than to treat diseases, according to the concern group Consumers International.

Joining hands with the WHO, the Hong Kong Consumer Council has called on nine restaurants chains, including McDonald's, KFC and Subway, to disclose whether they use meat from animals fed on growth-promoting antibiotics.

McDonald's Hong Kong responded that it has implemented the "McDonald's Global Policy on Antibiotic Use in Food Animals" since 2003 to ensure the use of antibiotics is limited to "medical purposes only".

However, it did not not mention the amount or the frequency of antibiotics use in its food production process. Ms Yau Wai-Shan, a regular customer of fast food restaurants, said she is used to eating in McDonald's. "It is cheap and I haven't felt sick yet, but of course, companies have the responsibilities to phase out the use of antibiotics."

However, Ms Yuen Tsz-Ying, who also dines regularly at fast food restaurants, said she will probably visit these restaurants less often than she used to since the chemicals added to the meat are unhealthy.

In Europe and Australia, there are national database that trace the use of antibiotics. "These help to prevent the spread of antibiotics resistance nationally and globally," said Prof Reichel.

But there is no official data collection on the use of antibiotics in Hong Kong. "Since 95 per cent of Hong Kong's food is imported, checking imported meat can be hard because that depends on the countries of origin of the products," Prof Reichel said.

Experts from the pharmaceutical industry suggest that antibiotics used in food industry and those for treating humans should be categorised separately to avoid the transfer of antibiotic resistance strains.

"People can reduce their chance of receiving drug-resistance bacteria by maintaining personal hygiene," Dr Yu said. About 25,000 people die of antibiotic resistant bacteria in the European Union every year, according to the World Health Organization.

"Although antibiotics use has been rising in recent years, there is no real cause for alarm or panic i at this stage," Prof Reichel suggested. He said the development of antibiotic resistance is accelerating but effective antibiotics are still available.

(Edited by Charlotte Yang)

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