A plateful of chicken and a glass of milk may sound to some like a wholesome meal. But an investigation by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has found that large-scale and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in poultry and meat farming contributes to the growing incidence of antibiotic resistance in India. Along with the frequently irrational and inappropriate prescription and usage of antibiotic medication, their use in animal feed — small doses administered daily, researchers say, make most animals gain as much as 3 per cent more weight than they normally would — leads to the animals developing resistance to the drug, which could then be transmitted to humans. The WHO recognises this practice as posing a serious health hazard, and has urged efforts to “terminate or rapidly phase out antimicrobials for growth promotion if they are used for human treatment”.
But the Indian government appears not to have noticed. This is despite the fact that India faces a high burden of infectious disease and cost constraints limit the extent to which older antibiotics can be replaced with newer and more expensive medication, compromising the management of common and lethal bacterial infections. Though the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in food animals has been banned in places like the European Union and Canada, there are no regulations in India on the use of antibiotics for poultry or dairy cows. The Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules, 1995, only regulates the use of antimicrobials and other pharmacologically active substances for seafood. The recommendations made in the National Policy for Containment of Antimicrobial Resistance in 2011— to frame the requisite regulations to ban non-therapeutic use and draw up labelling requirements — have yet to be acted on.
This indifference is mimicked across the food production chain. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, the nodal agency, acknowledged in its 2011 National Survey on Milk Adulteration that much of the milk consumed was contaminated. Previous studies by CSE and others have found that the banned hormone oxytocin is used on cattle to improve yield, and has been linked to the early onset of puberty in girls. Though the poultry industry complies with stringent EU standards for export, the absence of domestic regulation and lax implementation of laws means that Indians get stuck with unsafe and substandard meals that may do much worse than offend taste buds.