India risks becoming a global health hazard. In February the British daily, The Guardian, published a story describing the extent to which “chickens raised in India have been dosed with some of the strongest antibiotics known to medicine”. The article relied on a report of the Bureau for Investigative Journalism that claims to be an independent not-for-profit media organisation. It singled out India, even though the Bureau’s findings had also referred to similar antibiotics use in Vietnam, Russia, Mexico, Columbia and Bolivia. The issue raised in the story has serious implications for the health of all citizens, not only chicken-eaters.
Indian chicken producers claim that antibiotics are used only for treating sick birds. But an advertisement they had issued to this effect was met with sharp counter publicity. Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), published an open letter to Sania Mirza, telling her as a national icon, she should not have associated herself with a “misleading, false and libelous advertorial”. According to Bhushan, antibiotics are being “used routinely as a growth promoter”. CSE papers have established how across different districts in the country, chicken litter has been found to be multi-drug resistant. The litter had also made its way to the surrounding agricultural land. This means it carries risks for vegetarians as well.
Plucked, The Truth About Chicken , a 2017 book by Maryn McKenna unravels how chemical fertilisers, pesticides, antibiotics and hormones made chicken the conduit for not only profit-driven politics in the US but antibiotic resistance as well. It was only after a massive outbreak of food poisoning that the US regulators and consumers have become more vigilant. Now Walmart, the book says, along with some of the world’s biggest fast food chains, have started to move away from chicken loaded with antibiotics. The USFDA now expects adherence to standards adopted by the European Union 12 years ago.
Why is all this important to us? Because resistance blunts the effectiveness of drugs designed to cure or prevent infection. The bacteria survive and continue to multiply rendering ineffectual treatment for serious illnesses like pneumonia and tuberculosis, even prophylaxis in, say, caesarian deliveries. It hampers recovery in post-operative surgery. Once the bacteria becomes drug resistant, it affects anyone who gets afflicted by it. The resistance snowballs and defies even the strongest drug-based treatment exposing vulnerable populations — infants, children, farm workers and seniors — to incurable sickness.
Colistin is one of the last antibiotic weapons against serious human diseases and but is reportedly being used covertly to increase chicken weight. The Chinese have been using massive quantities of Colistin. This gave rise to a strain called mcr-1, which spread so widely that the Chinese government had to ban Colistin use. But not before people in 30 countries in five continents had eaten those chickens. After being banned in China, Colistin has found a ready market in India and has made its way into the country’s poultry farms.
Andhra Pradesh and Telangana account for over 80 per cent of the poultry meat production and half the egg production in the country, followed by Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka and West Bengal, Punjab and Haryana. A 2017 study (the largest so far), published in the journal, Environmental Health Perspectives, covered 18 poultry farms in Punjab and found very high levels of antibiotic resistance in the birds.
Chicken was once a part of food habits of the people in north-western, southern and coastal parts of the country. Today, it has become the favourite of the country’s fast growing urban middle-class. A new culture of eating out has been matched by innumerable quick service restaurants offering mouth-watering chicken dishes. Such restaurants are ubiquitous even in the Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities. Most consumers are oblivious to and undeterred by the health hazards of ingesting antibiotics. Meanwhile the industry is growing by some 20 per cent each year — broilers, layers and egg production taken together.
The Chairman of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), Ashish Bahuguna, whose writ runs over the food-end (but not the farm-end), informed me about the organisation’s new draft regulations for chicken. These prohibit the use of 19 antibiotics in poultry and also prescribe tolerance limits for 92 other antibiotics and drugs. Currently, the public comments to the draft rules are being examined. In April 2017, the Health Ministry published the National Action Plan to combat microbial resistance. Although it signifies a political commitment to ban the use of antibiotics as growth promoters, there has been little activity on the issue, and it has not attracted commensurate funding. Unless that changes quickly, the report will remain confined to the shelf.
Should India take the path of incremental improvement or should it draw a lesson from the EU, and now the US and China, and stop such use of antibiotics? Other countries are importing herbal animal feeds from India. The effectiveness of these herbal feeds should be studied for Indian conditions. And if these feeds pass the test, Indian farmers should be advised to use them. It is time that the ministries of heath and AYUSH, and the Department of Animal Husbandry show interest in the matter.
As an immediate measure, the government must issue advisories asking poultry farmers to stop the use of Colistin and maintain records of the overall use of all drugs given to poultry. This should become a strict requirement for the poultry industry. FSSAI should publish the new regulations and ensure that enforcement is visible, punishment is a deterrent and public awareness programmes are imaginative.
The poultry businesses’ meat should not be allowed to become the Indian consumer’s poison.
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