Tuesday, September 16, 2014


The reported presence of antibiotic residues in Chicken meat being sold in Kerala has raised alarming bells regarding the danger it poses to the citizens. It is known that this practice of using antibiotics is in vogue in the US and the government there woke up to the dangers to the consumer only recently, taking action belatedly because of the realization about the widespread development of resistance among humans to such commonly used antibiotics when administered during infections. If dreaded MRSA and similar monster bugs have emerged posing imposing challenges to treat diseases caused by them, the sole reason is indiscriminate use of antibiotics. No one would have imagined that such a situation would emerge in India too as most poultry farms are small in size and the farmers are not well versed with such technological aids for boosting the yield and provide added protection to the product sold in the market. It seems this hope was belied by the latest cases reported from Trivandrum in Kerala

The meat industry in the US has been using several antibiotics in feeds and water which can raise the yield of meat very significantly, about 3%. Added to this presence of these antibiotics in the meat extracted from such animals can have better microbiological quality during storage, transit and retailing. It is scandalous that more than 80% of antibiotics marketed in the US, amounting to about 8 million kgs, is used by the meat industry involving Cows, Pigs and Chicken. While there are no two views regarding the efficacy of sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics in making the animals plumber and fatter, the mechanism as to how this happens is still a mystery. It is believed by many that the antibiotics, once ingested by the animal, works in the intestine to reduce the population of microflora, increasing the overall feed efficiency and nutrient absorption. Interestingly the problem regarding the adverse consequences of use of antibiotics was raised from time to time but industry resisted any government intervention with its political clout for more than 2 decades. Even now the action being initiated in the US to eliminate use of antibiotics in meat industry is more a half hearted measure and assuming the ban will be agreed upon it will not kick in before 3 years after approval of the measure! 

While antibiotic use in feeds are based on the assumption that meat yield is increased, what is forgotten is that Salmonella, bacteria one of the most ubiquitous pathogens found in more than 40% of meat produced in the US, can develop resistance to antibiotics like Pencillin, Azethromycin and Tetracycline when used in sub-therapeutic doses and most cases of food poisoning in that country are caused by this dreaded bacteria. If the ban on use of antibiotics is eventually enforced, farmers will need prescription by a veterinarian justifying their use for treating only animal diseases. What such a ban can do to the Pharma industry is a big question and they also have tremendous lobbying clout and it is to be seen whether they will sit idle watching their fortunes dipping on account of the shrinking market for their products.

In the Trivandrum case reported, the authorities concerned picked up the samples and got them tested by an accredited laboratory outside the state implying the unreliability of the local laboratories! It is not clear whether the presence of antibiotics was on the surface of the meat or in the meat itself raising further questions regarding this episode. Could it be that the meat dealers have dusted or used antibiotic spray on the surface only or whether antibiotic solution was injected into the meat? What is intriguing is that the Official responsible for food safety in the state washed off his hands saying no action could be taken because the sampling was not done properly! In any other country there would have been raids in the premises of the dealers and seizure of the entire stock. This episode comes close on the heels of a report in Kerala where large quantities raw meat products, more than one year old were found to be brought into the state by traders for sale there! For a highly perishable product like meat to stay stable without any sign of mold, fungus and other microbial vectors, they must have been treated with tons of antibiotics and chemicals and imagine the consequences of consuming such products on the health of the consumer! 

Is it not sad that even after detecting the presence in some of the samples analyzed, the representative of FSSAI expressed his helplessness to take any action hiding under technical and legal excuses? Can such a thing would happen any where else in the world where health of the citizen is paramount importance, over riding all other considerations? It is time FSSAI realizes that by touting its "Authority" without the teeth to bite can result in such a situation where thieves caught red handed are allowed to go free unharmed and unpunished! How can the citizens repose faith and trust in this organization to protect them from food criminals who rule the roost with no fear? 


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