What should I eat now? Is there nothing that is safe?" This is what I am asked every time we at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) do a study on toxins in food. It is a fact that our food is getting to be unhealthy - not because of deliberate adulteration, but because we are choosing to produce it in unsafe ways. The question is, what should we do? The fact also is that in India we still have a choice. We are only beginning this journey of industrial food production, which is focused on efficiency and profits and not on consumer safety and health. So why do we not want to get it right? Why should we not exercise our right to food that secures livelihoods and nutrition?
This time we have looked at antibiotics in chicken. The CSE laboratory bought 70 samples of chicken from different markets spread 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 - they are life-saving drugs.
We know today that antibiotic resistance is a near health pandemic - it is said that humans are headed towards a post-antibiotic era, where these miracle medicines will simply not work. It is also a fact that 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 also well know that resistance is growing because of our over-exposure to antibiotics - microbes become resistant to the drug, which is then no longer effective for treatment.
But what we do not realise is that our over-exposure to antibiotics is growing also because of the food we eat - this food has been grown by serving it antibiotics. This is what we found in the chicken samples. Of the 70 samples, 40 per cent - about every second chicken we tested - had antibiotic residues and 17 per cent of the samples had more than one antibiotic present in the muscles, kidneys or livers.
There is a link between the antibiotics we found in chicken and the problem of antibiotic resistance in humans. In India, 13 studies done in various hospitals across the country have found evidence of resistance to the same antibiotics we found in chicken. This is not a coincidence. It is a deadly fact.
The question then is, what do we do? Should we stop eating chicken? Or should we insist that poultry is produced without antibiotics? Can it be done?
The fact is that the poultry industry uses antibiotics not to treat diseased chickens. It uses antibiotics because it is worried that chickens will get diseased. They are bred in over-crowded and, often, highly unsanitary conditions. So chicken farmers pump antibiotics in drinking water to prevent any outbreaks. Their need to use antibiotics is driven by the method they have chosen to produce our food.
This is not all. The poultry industry uses antibiotics also for profit. When chickens are given antibiotic laced-feed, they put on weight. So farmers buy antibiotics in bulk and mix it in the feed. Or they simply buy the pre-mix feed manufactured by the big poultry, which includes antibiotics and whose labels claim that it will promote growth in broiler chicken.
And why not? There is no regulation against the use of antibiotics in chickens. At best, all that the government has done till date is to issue some weak and inconsequential guidelines for "judicious" use of antibiotics in animals. The Bureau of Indian Standards specification for poultry feed - which says that antibiotics should not be used as growth promoters - is not mandatory. So the use of antibiotics continues and grows - all at the cost of our health.
What should be done? This is where we need to choose the direction of future policy - the way we will produce and regulate safety in our food. There are three options before us. One, that we follow the way of the United States, 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 chickens - kidneys, livers or muscles. Or we can follow Denmark, Sweden and some others who restrict and even ban the use of certain antibiotics in animals. Or if we can find another approach, even better for health and livelihoods. This is our only choice. Let's discuss this.