MRSA superbug on pork and chicken raises health fears

The emergence of a new strain of the MRSA superbug in pig and chicken units on the continent represents a “serious human health threat” that could spread to the UK, according to the Soil Association.


On Monday (25 June) the Soil Association published research suggesting that the superbug, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), has already transferred from farm animals to farm workers and their families in the Netherlands.


The organic body reckons “40% of Dutch pigs, 13% of calves, a high proportion of chickens and 50% of pig farmers have been found to carry farm-animal MRSA”.


The SA has quoted a letter from Dr C. P. Veerman, the Dutch minister for agriculture, to the Dutch parliament that said that in the Netherlands, farm-animal MRSA has been found in 20% of pork, 21% of chicken and 3% of beef on sale to the public.


Mr Veerman adds: “It is very unlikely that ‘animal-farming-related MRSA’ only exists in the Netherlands, considering the animal types where MRSA is found and the many animal movements and comparable livestock farming methods in other EU member states. So far, there are no hard facts about this. It is important, for these reasons, that all Member States examine their animals.”


Although the new strain of MRSA has yet to be found in the UK the SA is lobbying government to step-up its surveillance efforts.


“It has not yet been found in UK livestock or meat products, but neither the government nor the Food Standards Agency are carrying out any surveys of the most likely carriers, live pigs, chickens and imported meat,” said the Soil Association.


In a response to a parliamentary question on the issue junior DEFRA minister Ben Bradshaw dismissed the Soil Association’s concerns, “…there is no current evidence that food-producing animals form a reservoir of MRSA infection in the UK…” he said. 


According to the SA Dutch scientists and government officials blame this new strain of MRSA in farm animals on the “high levels of antibiotics used in intensive livestock farming”.  This led it to question the worth of an recent EU directive requiring all member states to reduce the level of antibiotics included as routine in animal rations.


“EU Directive 2004/28/EC, required member states to ban the advertising of prescription-only medicines to ‘members of the general public’, bringing veterinary medicines into line with human medicines.


“Advertising to farmers could no longer be permitted and the Directive only made exceptions to the prohibition for veterinary surgeons and pharmacists. The National Office of Animal Health (NOAH), the body which represents the pharmaceutical industry, strongly lobbied against this and succeeded in getting these advertising restrictions dropped,” a SA statement reads.


Richard Young, Soil Association policy adviser said:  “This new type of MRSA is spreading like wildfire across Europe, and we know it is transferring from farm animals to humans – with serious health impacts. Concerned scientists have referred to this as ‘a new monster’.  Fortunately, it has not yet been found in UK livestock or imported meat, but then neither the government nor the Food Standards Agency are looking for it in live animals or meat.” 


The Soil Association is calling on the government to:

  • Urgently instigate a testing programme to establish the MRSA status of UK livestock and meat on sale

  • Fully implement its claimed commitment to reducing use of veterinary antibiotics – including banning advertising of all antibiotics to farmers

  • Immediately prohibit the prophylactic and off-label use of all antibiotics on farms that are defined as ‘critically important’ in human medicine by the World Health Organisation

  • Screen all farm workers and vets coming into the UK from countries where farm-animal MRSA has been found


To view the report click here

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