German chicken meat rife with antibiotic-resistant superbugs

More than half of chicken meat sold at low-cost supermarkets in Germany is contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to a probe of meat samples.

The environmental and consumer organization Germanwatch described the results of their study on Tuesday as “an alarmingly high resistance rate” that shows the overuse of antibiotics in industrial poultry production is endangering human health.

Read more: Superbugs kill 33,000 in Europe each year, says study 

Germanwatch had 59 chicken meat samples from large discount supermarkets analyzed at a university lab and found that 56% were colonized by antibiotic-resistant germs. The meat samples came from the four largest slaughterhouses in Germany.

Responding to the study, the Federal Agriculture Ministry said it “suggests that too many antibiotics are used in the poultry industry.”

Bacteria-fighting drugs have become less effective due to overuse in humans and animals as bacteria adapt and evolve. The more antibiotics are used, the greater bacteria are able to boost their defenses.

Read more: German scientists find antibiotic-resistant germs in lakes, streams 

Alarmingly, the study found that one-third of chicken meat samples from discount supermarkets Lidl, Netto, Real, Aldi and Penny were contaminated with bacteria resistant to so-called reserve antibiotics.

Reserve antibiotics are fourth-generation and fifth-generation drugs used as a last resort to fight superbugs resistant to traditional antibiotics.

Experts said that bacteria are killed when chicken is properly cooked, but that humans can become sick or even die through cross-contamination with uncooked foods in the kitchen, such as on a cutting board. Workers at industrial chicken farms can also be exposed to germs through inhalation.

Antibiotic resistant microbes can contaminate uncooked foods in the kitchen

Probes of 12 chicken meat samples from small-scale farmers were also conducted and only one was found to have antibiotic-resistant germs. In another analysis, six samples from ecological farms found no resistant pathogens.

Germanwatch linked the differing results to the overuse of antibiotics at industrial poultry farms.

Read more: WHO publishes list of 12 pathogens that pose greatest risk to human health

The situation will only improve if the government prohibits veterinarians from prescribing antibiotics to “compensate for the consequences of catastrophic housing conditions and turbo-breeding in the production of cheap meat,” Germanwatch said.

Although German poultry farmers have halved their antibiotic consumption since 2011, it is still twice as high as in Denmark, Great Britain or Austria, according to the environmental and consumer organization.

Germanwatch demanded that the use of antibiotics at poultry farms be dramatically reduced and that chicken meat be labeled as coming from industrial farms to better inform consumers.

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