Three UK retailers are buying meat from chickens in Poland that were given a group of antibiotics used to treat human Salmonella infections.

An investigation by broadcaster ITV, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and newspaper The Guardian found Asda, Iceland, and Lidl get frozen chicken products from a Polish poultry supplier linked to a past Salmonella outbreak.

It revealed SuperDrob is sourcing chicken from farms that use fluoroquinolone antibiotics, which are also used to treat human Salmonella infections. The company confirmed to investigators that the drugs were used but denied overuse and said that this is also prohibited for its suppliers.

Samples of waste collected from a number of Polish poultry farms that have supplied SuperDrob were tested and E. coli resistant to fluoroquinolones was found.

SuperDrob was linked to a Salmonella outbreak in the UK and Europe in 2020. The UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer Christine Middlemiss called for action in a letter to her Polish counterpart in December 2020. In April 2021, officials from Poland and the UK met virtually to discuss the safety of poultry meat.

Salmonella and Poland problem
A series of Salmonella outbreaks in 2020 and 2021 caused by breaded chicken from Poland could have affected up to 5,000 people in the UK and cost an estimated £7.7 million ($9.6 million), according to government officials.

Between May 2018 and December 2020, nearly 100 patients were reported in Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden.

A total of 190 Salmonella RASFF notifications mentioned poultry meat products from Poland, based on figures from the 2022 Alert and Cooperation network (ACN) report.

Concerns about the safety of frozen, breaded, raw chicken products led the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) to look at the prevalence of Salmonella, E. coli and antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in items such as nuggets, dippers and goujons, available for retail sale retail in the UK.

Overall, 310 samples were tested between April and July 2021, and Salmonella was detected five times. Another study in 2020, found Salmonella in 40 of 456 samples of chicken products on retail sale.

Data from the later research suggest a decline in contamination rates between 2020 and 2021. Affected supermarkets changed suppliers, which at least partially explained the improved results, as contamination was linked to only a few producers.

A third study, published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology, collected chicken products between April and July 2021 from retailers in the UK and tested them for Salmonella, generic E. coli, extended spectrum beta-lactamase-producing, colistin-resistant, and carbapenem-resistant E. coli. 

Salmonella was detected in five of 310 samples. Three were Salmonella Infantis and two Salmonella Java. One S. Infantis isolate was multidrug resistant, while the others were resistant to at least one class of antimicrobials. Generic E. coli were detected in 113 samples, with multidrug resistance demonstrated in 20 percent of these. A colistin-resistant E. coli was isolated from one sample; this had the mcr-1 gene.

Reaction to investigation
The FAIRR Initiative said findings of the investigation and its own work suggest that current guidance and regulation do not go far enough to ensure food safety.

Jo Raven, director of thematic research and engagements at the FAIRR Initiative, said AMR poses both a risk to public health and a financial risk to investors in meat producers and retailers.

“As FAIRR’s Protein Producer Index has shown, this risk continues to rise despite the growing number of companies with Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) recognized certification,” she said.

“With approximately 70 percent of antibiotic use occurring in animal agriculture supply chains, it’s clear that stronger regulations, and stricter enforcement, will be necessary to ensure food safety and responsible antibiotic use in the protein supply chain. As the UK revises its veterinary medicine regulations post-Brexit, there is a real opportunity for the government to increase its ambition and help avoid a repeat of this tragic outcome.”

Kath Dalmeny, CEO of Sustain, said: “To waste our remaining antibiotics to cover up poor conditions on chicken farms is deeply irresponsible. It is incredibly disturbing to learn that meat from animals dosed with critical antibiotics is being sourced for UK supermarkets; this could lead to potentially lethal bacteria developing antibiotic resistance. The use of human critical antibiotics in animal farming must stop, and use of other farm antibiotics greatly reduced. They should only ever be used on individual sick animals, not preventative or mass medication.”

Cóilín Nunan, from the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, said high-priority critically important antibiotics, like fluoroquinolones and colistin, are overused in Polish farming.

“The UK government, the FSA and supermarkets should all take responsibility for ensuring that food produced with such gross misuse of life-saving antibiotics does not reach the British consumer.”

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