Drug-resistant E. coli Found in Nearly Two-thirds of UK Chicken Samples


Public Health England and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs researchers in the United Kingdom found drug-resistant E. coli in a large number of chicken samples, while much lower rates of contamination were observed in beef and pork samples.

New findings by researchers in the United Kingdom have found that nearly two-thirds of raw chicken from supermarkets have a form of antibiotic-resistant Escherichia coli a troubling finding for food health officials and consumers alike.

The E. coli group of bacteria run the gamut from harmless strains to pathogenic strains that can cause serious infections. E. coli bacteria can be found living in the environment, food, and in the intestines of humans and animals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that E. coli infections are typically associated with contaminated food, presenting as abdominal cramps and diarrhea, or even as respiratory illnesses, urinary tract infections, and pneumonia.

Investigators from Public Health England and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) recently conducted an investigation into food sources of E. coli in UK grocery stores. In their study, published in the journal International Journal of Food Microbiology, the team looked for extended-spectrum β-lactamase (ESBL)-producing E. coli, which confers resistance to most β-lactam antibiotics as well as carbapenem-resistant forms of the bacteria in raw beef, chicken, pork, fruit, and vegetables.

From 2013 to 2014, the researchers obtained samples collected from retail grocery stores in London, East Anglia, North West England, Scotland, and Wales, purchasing a total of 397 raw meat samples and 400 produce samples to test for E. coli. While just 1.9% of beef and 2.5% of pork samples tested positive for ESBL-producing E. coli, the team found the bacteria in 65.4% of chicken samples. Of the chicken tested, 80% was farmed in the United Kingdom. None of the fruits or vegetables tested in the study contained the resistant E. coli. Carbapenem-resistant E. coli did not appear in any of the meat or produce samples, nor did the bacteria containing CTX-M-15 ESBL, which causes diarrhea and vomiting and is commonly found in human isolates in the United Kingdom.

A recent annual study published by Public Health England showed that the rate of E. coli infections have risen in recent years, from 65.8 cases per 100,000 individuals in 2014-2015 to 70.1 cases per 100,000 individuals in 2015-2016. Authors of the recent supermarket study note that raw chicken is the United Kingdom public’s biggest raw food source of ESBL-producing E. coli today, and that the prevalence of the bacteria in poultry is linked to copious use of antibiotics in farming practices. However, a recent report on Veterinary Antimicrobial Resistance and Sales Surveillance shows that sales of antibiotics for veterinary and farming use fell overall by 9% from 2014 to 2015, and sales for use in animals for food production dropped by 10% in that period. The numbers show that veterinary antibiotic sales reached a four-year low. The report also notes that the use of antibiotics by members of The British Poultry Council’s (BPC) Antibiotic Stewardship Scheme in 2015 declined by 27% from 2014 to 2015, including a 52% reduction in the use of fluoroquinolones. In 2015, the BPC also ceased using colistin in its flocks, and in 2016, stopped the prophylactic use of fluoroquinolones in day-old chickens, the report noted. DEFRA noted that the recent report showed that the United Kingdom is on track to meet national targets for reducing antibiotic use in animals as well as the costly and dangerous problem of antimicrobial resistance.

“Antibiotic resistance is the biggest threat to modern medicine and we must act now to help keep antibiotics effective for future generations,” said DEFRA Minister for Rural Affairs and Biosecurity, Lord Gardiner, in a recent press release. “This report shows the hard work of our vets and farmers is already making a real impact. Our farmers and vets are setting an excellent example for others around the world to follow, upholding the United Kingdom’s position at the forefront of international efforts to tackle AMR.”

The authors of the supermarket study noted that thoroughly cooking raw chicken or meat can eliminate E. coli, even the drug-resistant forms of the pathogen. Food safety experts recommend the following steps to avoid acquiring E. coli infections from contaminated foods:

  • Avoid eating high-risk foods, especially undercooked ground beef, unpasteurized milk or juice, soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk, or alfalfa sprouts.
  • Use a food thermometer to make sure that ground beef has reached a safe internal temperature of 160° F.
  • Wash hands before preparing food, after diapering infants, and after contact with cows, sheep, or goats, their food or treats, or their living environment
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