E.Coli Warning from Excessive Antibiotic Use

UK - In a report published today, the Soil Association warns there is now overwhelming evidence that the excessive use of antibiotics on UK livestock farms is contributing to the rise of drug resistance in human E. coli infections.
calendar icon 29 March 2012
clock icon 3 minute read

The report, ‘E. coli superbugs on farms and food’, reveals the extent of Britain’s E. coli epidemic. The Soil Association estimates that 750,000–1,500,000 people in the UK contracted an E. coli infection in 2011, resulting in nearly 40,000 cases of blood poisoning and nearly 8,000 deaths. The Soil Association says that cases of E. coli blood poisoning have increased nearly fourfold in the last 20 years.

E. coli’s resistance to key antibiotics has risen sharply in the past decade, and the Health Protection Agency say the prospect of new antibiotics to treat E. coli is poor. Scientists increasingly view farm antibiotic use as a significant contributor to the problem. A major review of the evidence in Europe recently concluded that, 'In addition to the contribution of antimicrobial usage in people, a large proportion of resistant E. coli isolates causing blood stream infections in people are likely derived from food animal sources'.

A new type of extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL) E. coli is of particular concern. It is described by Government scientists as “extremely resistant” to many classes of antibiotics and “more virulent” than other forms of E. coli. Patients with ESBL E. coli blood poisoning are nearly three times as likely to die as other affected patients.

The prevalence of ESBL E. coli on British farms has increased dramatically since it was first identified in 2004. This is almost certainly due to high levels of antibiotic use on farms. The Soil Association has calculated that the farm use of antibiotics per animal was at its highest-ever level in 2010, 18% higher than in 2000, while the use of modern cephalosporin antibiotics, which most strongly encourage ESBL E. coli, has increased over six-fold despite falls in livestock numbers.

Drofessor Peter Collignon, Director of the Infectious Diseases Unit and Microbiology Department at Canberra Hospital, Australia, who wrote the Foreword of the report said: “It is very important that we stop multi-resistant bacteria developing in food animals to prevent their spread to people. To do that we need to address the issue of inappropriate use of antibiotics in farming, just as much as in the health profession.”

Richard Young, Soil Association policy advisor and co-author of the report, said: “Just about every non-organic chicken in the UK is still routinely put on antibiotics from the day it is hatched. The UK does not have an effective strategy for addressing the rising levels of antibiotic resistance on farms and food, and is the only EU country still allowing antibiotics to be advertised to farmers.”

In response to the report, the Soil Association is recommending that the preventative use of antibiotics in healthy animals is phased out, and the overall use of antibiotics on farms halved within five years.

Last week the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reported that resistance in indicator E. coli in poultry was high to the critically important antimicrobial ciprofloxacin while in indicator enterococci in animals high resistance was recorded to another important antibiotic, erythromycin.

A judge in the US last week issued a landmark ruling that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must act to limit the overuse of antibiotics in farm animals.

Further Reading

- You can view the full report by clicking here.

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