The sick truth about our meat

redmeatphoto_1[1]Three dead pigs lie piled on top of one another, dumped in a corner of a hangar-like building at a farm in the north-east of England. From the snout of one, a stream of blood snakes across the concrete floor and into an adjoining pen.
There, young, live animals are held in groups of five as they are fattened for slaughter, never once setting foot outdoors. Their tails have been trimmed to prevent them biting each other’s off, as can happen in such cramped conditions.
Some pigs bear scars from previous attacks, while several others have ugly, open wounds on their flanks. Opened bottles of antibiotics and hypodermic syringes lay strewn around.

Elsewhere, one piglet lies prostrate on the floor, straining to breathe and close to death. Even the piglets that do survive will be separated from their mothers at four weeks and sent off to be fattened up, after which they will be slaughtered, packaged and sent to supermarkets across the country.

These shocking images were handed to the animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals by activists who gained entry to the farm on two separate occasions over the past year. The farmer, who the Mail has chosen not to identify, denied any ill-treatment and said the leading farm standards scheme to which he belongs had found no fault, but whatever the truth of the matter, it’s clear that there is little room for sentimentality in modern agriculture.

After all, farmers are competing in an international market — one that is largely driven by price. Perhaps most worryingly, that price is being paid not only by the animals described here, but by you, the consumer.

Here, in the first of a three-part series investigating the disturbing truth about British meat, we look at the secrets behind the industry. How, unnoticed by consumers, the meat we eat has been manipulated and re-manufactured to maximise profit — leaving a legacy of problems that we are only now starting to understand.

We start with the scourge of antibiotics. Intensive farming practices mean diseases can spread rapidly among livestock, with the result that it became the norm to administer antibiotics as a preventative measure.

Across the world, more than half of all antibiotics used are administered to animals.

The flip side is that this over-use has bred resistance in the very bugs they were intended to counter — among them a strain of superbug MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus) called Livestock Associated MRSA CC398, which can be fatal in the weak, sick or elderly.

Originating in pigs, it can be passed on to humans who eat contaminated meat, and to workers on farms or abattoirs. It can then — most terrifyingly — be passed from person to person.

It has already killed at least six people in Denmark, where it is now endemic in the national pig herd. The strain has also been identified in a third of all packs of pork there and it has spread to the UK. Not only has it been found in a handful of British pig farms, but this month it was revealed that tests conducted on British-produced pork had identified it in packs of supermarket mince.

Three British people, none with links to the farming industry, have needed treatment for the bug.

The CC398 strain is just one of a number of farmyard superbugs that can be passed from animals to humans. Strains of antibiotic-resistant E.coli have also been found in one in four chicken samples. Once humans are infected, it means people suffering from conditions such as bladder or blood infections can be impossible to treat.

Earlier in the summer if 2016, government minister Jim O’Neill published a review into the issue which concluded that if action is not taken now, then by 2050 more people would die from superbugs than cancer.

Many will ask how on earth have we got to a point where the food supposed to sustain us could actually be killing us? In a cruel twist of irony, Britain’s efforts to improve welfare standards in our pig farms at the turn of the century have had unforseen consequences.

In 1999 sow stalls — restrictive crates in which sows were confined during their four-month pregnancies — were banned in Britain, as were tethers, a type of collar or chain, used to stop pigs escaping from an open-ended stall.

Animal welfare groups welcomed the changes and boasted that Britain’s move would force the rest of Europe to follow its lead.

It did — but not until 2013. As a result, the British pork industry found itself operating at a commercial disadvantage for more than a decade.

Over the past 20 years the national pig herd has declined by more than 40 per cent. During that time, consumption of pork in the UK has actually gone up, an increase that has largely been met by lower-welfare foreign imports.

As a result, today some 54 per cent of pork eaten in the UK comes from abroad, the majority from the EU.

Inevitably, faced with this competition and in a bid to cut costs, the remaining British farmers have either had to target premium markets with outdoor reared or organic pork — or try to find savings by ramping up production further still, with some pushing to open units housing as many as 25,000 pigs each.

Today, about half the antibiotics used in Britain are given to animals. Of them, about 60 per cent will be administered to pigs. The more intensively reared they are, the more drugs are needed.

Research suggests overcrowding can lead to animals biting each other, causing infections to spread through their wounds. Many animals also have immature immune systems as they are taken from their mother while still suckling, meaning they do not receive adequate nutrition in their early lives to develop strength and disease resistance.

Preventative mass medication of stock is routine — it is claimed that 88 per cent of antibiotics on UK farms are used in this way. On organic farms, where drugs are administered only to sick animals, antibiotic use is put at 40 times lower per kilo of meat produced than in conventional farming. The dangers of using antibiotics so freely is something that Denmark, where pigs outnumber humans two to one, has learned to its cost. In 2007, the first Danish case of humans carrying MRSA CC398 from pigs was identified.

Initially, the bug was found in people working on farms or in abattoirs, handling contaminated meat. But it has spread far beyond that.

Indeed, in the past decade up to 12,000 people have been colonised by it and in many agricultural areas CC398 is now the most frequently detected type of MRSA. While the majority of those carrying the bacterium will do so without falling ill, some will suffer serious skin complaints. But as the fatalities prove, CC398 can be much more serious in the old and the sick.

Despite this, live pigs for breeding continue to be imported from Denmark. Research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found that over the past six years more than 3,000 Danish pigs have been brought to the UK.

In the past two years cases of CC398 in pig farms have been identified in Northern Ireland and eastern England. Their origin is unclear. And, as no systematic tests are carried out on UK farms for CC398, it is impossible to know how many more may harbour the bug. But we know it is here.

Eaerlier this month October 2016), it was identified in British pork meat for the first time.

Tests on 97 UK-produced pork products commissioned by pressure group the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics found that two samples of minced pork from Asda and one from Sainsbury’s were contaminated with the superbug strain.

Like other food-borne germs, CC398 is killed by thorough cooking — the Food Standards Agency says there are no known cases of people contracting CC398 from eating meat in the UK — but it can be passed on through lapses in hygiene.

It has also emerged that the bug has been identified in three British individuals. A spokesperson for Public Health England (PHE) would not disclose details, only confirming that all presented with skin infections. None had any connection with farming.

‘Livestock associated MRSA can pass between animals and humans, most often without causing any problems,’ said the PHE’s Professor Angela Kearns. ‘Occasionally, it can cause infections, most commonly in people who work with livestock, but the overall risk to human health in the UK is low.

‘When necessary, livestock associated MRSA can be treated with appropriate antibiotics. It is important to remember that thoroughly cooking meat destroys all bacteria, whether they are resistant or not.’

The issue is also downplayed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). A spokesman told the Mail: ‘The National Pig Association (NPA) recommends that pigs imported to Britain are screened for livestock associated MRSA and Defra supports this recommendation. The Government is currently reviewing options for surveillance, which will be proportionate to the low health risk posed by livestock associated MRSA.’

And he added: ‘Tackling resistance to antibiotics is one of the Government’s top priorities.

‘We are already making good progress in the UK and have set out a clear commitment to significantly reduce the level of antibiotic use in livestock.’

A spokeswoman for the NPA added that the pig industry is committed and taking action to minimise its use of antibiotics wherever possible.

She added that CC398 is considered to be of ‘low risk to public and animal health and it is not a food safety concern’. But others warn that by downplaying risks, Britain is walking into an uncertain future.

‘Scientists are now warning that the extensive MRSA reservoir in animals could ultimately lead to a pandemic spread in the human population,’ says Emma Rose, from the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics.

‘It is able to cause serious and potentially fatal infections in humans and, as the bacteria is resistant to antibiotics, it is extremely difficult to treat. What’s more, even more dangerous variations are emerging as the superbug evolves.’

It is a point echoed by Professor Hans Jorn Kolmos, a leading microbiologist and MRSA expert from Denmark, who warns we should be doing everything we can to stop it spreading in British pigs.

‘If you get it into your own pig production lines and get it to the point where, like us, you have 70 per cent of pig farms colonised, then you really have a problem,’ he told the Daily Mail. ‘It is not only the patients who die, but those who survive — you spend a lot of resources curing them.

‘The antibiotics we have for these type of strains are limited and those we do have don’t work as well as the traditional ones. So we are forced to use other types of antibiotics that are more toxic, less efficient and much more expensive. Don’t think that this is a problem that will solve itself just by closing your eyes.’

These concerns do not just apply to MRSA. The same series of tests by the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics also found superbug strains of E.coli in supermarket chicken samples.

The antibiotic-resistant bug was detected on 22 of 92 chicken pieces bought from seven major supermarkets. They tested positive for ESBL E.coli, a type of E.coli resistant to the critically important modern cephalosporin antibiotics popular in hospitals. The samples included whole roasting chickens, packs of legs, thighs, drumsticks and diced breast meat.

E.coli, which kills more than 5,500 people a year in England, is associated with sepsis and urinary tract infections. And, as we shall see in part two of our investigation, that is not the only bug associated with chicken.

Mark Holmes, reader in microbial genomics and veterinary science at the University of Cambridge, carried out the tests.

He said: ‘Every time someone falls ill, instead of just getting a food poisoning bug they might also be getting a bug that is antibiotic resistant. If they end up developing sepsis or a urinary tract infection, they may well find they have a bug that is resistant to the first choice antibiotic. By the time they get on to the right antibiotic the bug could be out of control. It can even lead to death.’

Again, the authorities insist that consumers have little to worry about if they cook their meat properly.

But consumers are increasingly worried about the over-use of antibiotics. In recent months it has emerged that plans are afoot to introduce ranges of meat certified as ‘antibiotic-free’.

British pork processor Karro Food Group registered a trademark showing a pig’s head with ‘antibiotic free’ written above it earlier this year.

It said there was significant demand for such a range and that it was in discussions with a number of its leading UK customers.

One farm in Yorkshire is already supplying Karro with 500 antibiotic-free pigs a week for export to the U.S. The pigs receive antibiotics only if they are sick and are then tagged and excluded from shipment. The farm is paid roughly ten per cent more per antibiotic-free pig, with only five per cent of pigs requiring antibiotic treatment.

It also emerged last month that supermarket Morrisons had registered the phrase ‘Morrisons Raised Without Antibiotics’ with the Intellectual Property Office. No further details about its plans for this line have been revealed.

It is a step in the right direction — yet it may be too little, too late.

Source: Tom Rawstorne

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