Until recently, you relished your chicken - wings, breasts, legs and all. That is, before environmentalist Sunita Narain and her Delhi-based think-tank, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), claimed that resistance to antibiotics in humans in India was growing because of indiscriminate use of these drugs by poultry farmers.
CSE made the claim on the basis of a study of 70 chicken samples in and around Delhi. It tested three tissues - muscle, liver and kidney - for the presence of six antibiotics used widely in poultry: oxytetracycline, chlortetracycline and doxycycline (class tetracyclines); enrofloxacin and ciprofloxacin (class fluoroquinolones) and neomycin (an aminoglycoside). The study found that 40 per cent of the samples contained residues of antibiotics. While 22.9 per cent contained residues of one antibiotic, the remaining 17.1 per cent samples showed residues of more than one antibiotic.
So, should you be concerned? "It would be scare-mongering if the issue were not important. But this concerns our food and health. We should be very serious about getting policy reform undertaken," says Narain.
The poultry industry, however, disagrees vehemently. "Yes, antibiotic resistance is a very serious issue. But you cannot isolate an industry that employs one lakh crore people just because you have found a negligible quantity of antibiotics in the samples," says Ashok Kumar Sharma, coordinator of the Poultry Federation of India, Gurgaon. Several people engaged in the poultry industry argue that farming in this day and age without the use of drugs is impossible. "Given the environment we live in, unless you medically fortify farm animals, you cannot keep them free of disease," says Sonu, a wholesaler from Gokulpuri in Delhi who sells chicken at the Ghazipur poultry mandi in Delhi's trans-Yamuna zone. "Even the vegetables in our diet are full of pesticides. So, should we stop eating them?" he asks.
Narain's report, however, accuses poultry farmers of using antibiotics to boost muscle growth and not just to prevent diseases. The drugs used cause an inflammation of the gut mucosa, resulting in faster growth. "We use drugs that are certified for poultry use, such as vaccines, and only for therapeutic purposes," says Pradeep Kumar, a poultry farm owner from Panipat in Haryana. "To the best of my knowledge, there are no antibiotics that can increase the body size of the bird quickly."
Kedarnath Yadav, a chemist who sells veterinary drugs at Bhagirath Palace near Old Delhi's Chandni Chowk, says, "We sell vitamins such as B1, B2, B6, AD3 and antibiotics such as Neomycin. None of these is harmful for human beings. Besides, we sell only to farmers who have a prescription from a veterinarian."
Animal activists, however, blame the government for the problem. "Poultry farms are supported by loans, subsidies and grants from banks behind which is the government. The aim is to grow birds in the fastest possible manner, so that they reach a certain body weight in a matter of days," says Kartick Satyanarayan, cofounder of Wildlife SOS. "And this has to be done with a target of a minimal mortality rate. This cannot be achieved naturally. Thus, artificial, unethical and inhumane methods are used. The government has to stops advocating the pumping of drug into livestock."
Vijay Teng of the Indian Federation of Animal Health Companies, which represents animal health companies, maintains that "regulatory guidelines" on the use of antibiotics in poultry are in place. "That is absolutely not factual," counters Narain. "There is a Bureau of Indian Standards guideline for poultry farming, but it is not mandatory. The Drugs Controller of India and the agriculture ministry have sent advisories to poultry owners that they should not use antibiotics." Antibiotics, she says, should only be prescribed for therapeutic purposes and not to encourage growth or prevent disease. "However, we have seen that across the world it is very difficult to distinguish between antibiotics meant for different purposes."
Her solution to the current situation: "Do not eat chicken till the government sets mandatory standards. Your renunciation would affect sales and consequently, put pressure on the government. Or, just harass the life out of your supplier to make sure that there is minimal antibiotic content in your chicken."
ALSO WATCH OUT FOR
Chicken is also contaminated with growth hormones and an anti-microbial called roxarsone. These are used to increase chicken size. Roxarsone is believed to be the source of arsenic contamination in poultry.