SPEAKING OF SCIENCE Policy & Issues

Antibiotics in the chicken we eat

The road from Hyderabad to Bangalore is full of history. On the way is Banganapalli in Rayalaseema, a place with legendary history. Until the late 1700s it was a major area for diamonds. Quarried from there, diamonds were brought over to the Nizam’s Hyderabad, where thousands of merchants marketed it across the world. Strip-mined to the last carat by the late 1800s, we lost out to South Africa and South America both in production and sales of this king of gems.

Banganapalli has also been known for another king, mango — the king of fruits. Even today the Banganapalli mangoes (also called Benishan or spotless) give the much overrated Alphonso a run for the money. But alas, over the last decades, traders’ greed has led to a crisis. In their bid to ripen the fruit quickly and in the godown, they have resorted to using calcium carbide, which generates the fruit ripening gas ethylene, to do so. Result, the fruit is unevenly ripe and not as sweet as the tree-ripened ones. The residual carbide poses health hazards as well. The government appears to have finally woken up but has only issued warnings to the fruit sellers so far.

These days, as we drive from Hyderabad to Bangalore, what hits the eye is row after row of poultry farms. These are the chicken factories owned and operated not by the villager who may breed a few in his home, but by industrial hatcheries. These and similar ones elsewhere across the country have led to a “chicken and egg” revolution in India, somewhat similar to the green and white revolutions. The midday meal scheme in Tamil Nadu has introduced eggs as an occasional part of the meal for school children, with the admirable idea of better nutrition.

But there is a danger here. Just as with chemicals in the mango, or oxytocin in milk (a hormone that supposedly increases milk output in cows and buffalos), we now have a health hazard looming large in commercially produced chicken. The hazard here is the use of antibiotics in the feed given to the chicken for faster growth and to prevent any infection during hatching. Famous hatcheries such as Venky’s, Vetline India and Skylark Hatcheries regularly use antibiotics in order to reduce feed conversion ratios.

The environmental science journal Down to Earth, in its 1-15 August, 2014 issue, has highlighted the problem by analysing the antibiotic content in the chicken meat obtained from various markets in its labs, and the results are alarming. Typical antibiotics found in the chicken liver, muscles and kidney are the tetracyclines (such as doxycycline), fluoroquinolones (such as enrofloxacin) and aminoglycosides (such as neomycin).

Why are these dangerous? Repeated and prolonged exposure will lead to the emergence of resistant strains of bacteria. And these resistant strains will be passed on to the humans who consume them. Even the un-mutated bacteria in the meat can directly unleash an assault on the microbes in our guts. And note too that the antibiotics used in poultry are the same as the ones used for humans.

What about the inedible parts of the chicken that we throw away or bury in the ground? Resistant strains from the feather, bone and such are now transferred to soil, ground water, ponds and streams. In effect, as Down to Earth points out as a microbe becomes resistant, it influences other microbes present in the gut of the chicken and then those in the environment, making them resistant to a wide range of antibiotics.

It is thus imperative that government takes urgent steps to deal with this growing misuse of antibiotics in the poultry industry. Dr Chandra Bhushan of Down to Earth has come up with a set of recommendations. Some of these are: (i) Ban the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, (2) Do not allow the use of antibiotics in feed and improve the regulations of the Bureau of Industrial security (BIS) accordingly, (3) Do not allow the use of antibiotics critical for humans in animals, (4) Train veterinarians on the judicious use of antibiotics, (5) Set pollution standards and install pollution control systems to limit transfer of resistant bacteria and antibiotics from poultry farms to the environments, (6) Encourage development, production and use of alternative antibiotic-free growth promoters such as herbal supplements and better farm management practices, and (7) Develop an integrated surveillance system to monitor antibiotic-resistant trends in humans, animals and the food chain.

In all this, time is of the essence. Why? Microbes grow fast. Their generation time is in minutes and hours. The chances of mutation, and the time involved in generating newer strains are thus far, far lesser than in animals. In fighting microbes with newer and newer antibiotics, we are fighting a hard-to-win battle, rather reminiscent of the myth of the Corinthian king Sisiphus. His punishment for his deceitfulness was to roll a boulder uphill, only to watch it roll back down, and repeat it. Shall we therefore be wiser, since win we must?

D. BALASUBRAMANIAN

dbala@lvpei.org

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2021 10:16:55 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/health/policy-and-issues/antibiotics-in-the-chicken-we-eat/article6376564.ece

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