Opinion: What Makes Antibiotic Resistance a Food Safety Issue?
Over this past weekend, I attended the American Society for Microbiology’s fourth conference on Antimicrobial Resistance in Zoonotic Bacteria and Foodborne Pathogens. In addition to hearing some fascinating presentations, I also had some thought-provoking conversations with my fellow attendees.
Something that came up in our chats was what we mean when we call antimicrobial resistance a food safety issue. I thought it would be worthwhile to give Food Safety News readers an insight into the discussion.
But food safety also encompasses a broader set of concerns such as chronic side effects and the public health implications of the way food is produced.
Let’s look at meat from animals raised without antibiotics, for example. Consumers might think that an “antibiotic-free” label means that the product doesn’t contain drug residues and is therefore safer to eat than conventionally produced versions.
That’s not what it means. The Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) runs the U.S. National Residue Program to identify contaminants — including antimicrobials — in any meat, poultry or egg product. And, if you’re a regular FSN reader, you know that the Food and Drug Administration sends warning letters to producers about residues FSIS personnel found in the tissues of slaughtered animals.
One way to explain why we and many others place antimicrobial use under the heading of “food safety” is that we separate “food” from “safety.”
Experts say that the more antibiotics we use, the more likely it is that bacteria will evolve to resist them, resulting in “superbugs” which are much harder to treat if they infect someone. Antibiotic overuse is an issue both in human medicine and agriculture.
While antibiotic use can lead to resistance in foodborne pathogens that sicken people — like in the case of last year’s Foster Farms Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak — what’s even more of a concern for public health professionals is resistant bacteria that are transferred to people through the environment, or the development of resistance genes which can then be passed on to bacteria that more frequently infect humans.
So animal antibiotics can affect our safety indirectly. “Food” comes back into the mix simply because we eat the meat from the animals being treated.
As you can probably imagine, the FSN staff spends a lot of time thinking about which stories are actually about food safety. Navigating nutrition and genetic engineering can be quite challenging.
We get a lot of comments on our stories sometimes debating whether they are truly about food safety or not. We encourage those discussions and have them among ourselves. When a politician or lobbyist says something is a matter of food safety, they’re lending it credence — no matter how ambiguous the connection — so it’s always important to remember the nuances.
The less-obvious links also remind me about what a complicated role food plays in all of our lives.
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