Modified antibiotic won't change meat sector plans

By Oscar Rousseau

- Last updated on GMT

The tough antibiotic vancomycin fights bacteria in three different ways
The tough antibiotic vancomycin fights bacteria in three different ways

Related tags Antimicrobial resistance Antibiotic resistance Beef Lamb Pork Poultry

A modified antibiotic that is more potent to bacteria and could make it easier to fight life-threatening superbugs is unlikely to change meat industry plans to cut medicine use.

US researchers have modified the antibiotic vancomycin​ to make it harder for bugs to develop resistance to the drug.

Many in the pharmaceutical industry have said the advance by scientists at The Scripps Research Institute will help in the fight against antimicrobial resistance. But as the meat industry faces pressure from government​, investors​ and pressure groups​ to scale back routine antibiotic use – which many claim is driving antimicrobial resistance – does the latest scientific advance change anything for the meat industry?

Clearly this is fantastic news in the fight against antimicrobial resistance. However, I don’t think that any meat sector will change the downward trajectory that we are all on,​” said Dr Zoe Davies, chief executive of the UK-based National Pig Association.

The pig industry is fully committed and determined to play its role in reducing, refining and replacing antibiotics wherever possible to ensure that a wide spectrum of treatment options remains available in order to protect the health and welfare of both pigs and humans alike.​”

Peter Stevenson, chief policy advisor at Compassion In World Farming, also said that industry should not ease up its efforts to reduce antibiotic use.

I’m pleased that a modified form of vancomycin has been developed that is better equipped to fight resistance. However, the livestock sector must not relax its attempts to reduce antibiotics use as there is strong evidence that farm use contributes to resistance in people to certain vital antibiotics.​”

Pressure to cut antibiotics

A group of investors, backing wealthy food companies including McDonald’s and Yum! Brands, are concerned antibiotic overuse could dent profits and, last year, began to put pressure on companies to change. A report issued by the investment group​ in March 2017 showed 80% of the companies concerned are working with suppliers to monitor drug use.

Many other meat processors have scaled back antibiotic usage, but figures show drug use is still high in Europe. Antibiotic usage in European farming is around 300% higher than what experts recommend, according to data published in October 2016 by the European Medicines Agency.

Fighting antimicrobial resistance is a key priority for the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), but the organisation declined to comment on the impact of the modified antibiotic when pressed for comment by this site.

The modified antibiotic vancomycin has been prescribed by doctors for over 60 years and bacteria has only now started to become resistant to it. Researchers believe that adding two modifications to the drug will make it much harder for the bacterium to become resistant. 

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