Animal production and public health: TV programme looks at “risks”

The Veterinary Record

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More than 20 veterinary surgeons took part in radio ‘phone-in programmes throughout the country after the screening of BBC’s controversial programme Brass Tacks on May 8. The programme looked at modern intensive methods of animal production and the potential risk to public health.

The programme asked whether it was time to tighten the rules on use of antibiotics even more than the regulations made following the Swann report 10 years ago which had shown that drugs were being misused by some sections of the industry. It asked, too, whether farming should take a different direction and move towards “organic” methods, which were less reliant on the routine use of drugs and chemicals.

In a half-hour film before a studio discussion it was stated that 75 per cent of pigs and 98 per cent of chickens were produced in intensive units. The industry had “fulfilled its promise”. Farmers had brought meat and poultry out of the luxury class.

But the threat to the public health was increasing because of the expansion of intensive methods and the misuse of powerful an at times “suspect” veterinary drugs. If the balance were corrected then meat would become more expensive. But to ignore health risks might prove even more expensive. A public health scientist believed that intensive animal husbandry was the prime reason for the increase in salmonella infection. The catering industry and food handlers should assume that incoming meat was contaminated. There were 11,000 notified cases of food poisoning each year – about 6,000 were salmonella poisoning.

John Parsons, a veterinary surgeon who had sat on the Swann Committee, said that farmers were “living on a knife edge” with intensive farming. The film pointed out that it was a balancing act between potentially big profits and financial ruin, Disease could tip that balance, so more drugs were used.

Antibiotics were the front line of defence and a useful side effect was that they could also be growth promoters. The drug industry had “fulfilled the farmer’s demands”. Of a £100m industry, one fifth of that was from the sale of antibiotics.

But modern farming methods had produced new disease problems because, with the wide use of antibiotics, they were becoming less effective by causing resistance. The case of the outbreak of infection due to Salmonella typhimurium phage type 204 in Leicestershire in 1977 was given as an illustration of that. The organism had proved resistant to chloramphenicol, streptomycin, sulphonamides and tetracycline. The film said that in 18 months “a new and more dangerous salmonella had spread throughout Britain.” This year it was likely to be common in humans, because of transferable resistance.

How had it happened, the film asked?

One possibility was the black market in substandard, illegal drugs. The Veterinary Products Committee was the official line of defence. It studied drugs to see if they were safe. But “after nine years there were 3,000 products which had not been checked.”

The programme alleged that some farmers broke the rules. But veterinary surgeons could not be relied upon to report illegal practices. Alistair Porter, registrar of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, said that veterinary surgeons were brought up to have a close relationship with clients and were not supposed to disclose anything they discovered in the course of their veterinary professional relationships.

The programme said that there was little done to curb drug sales by veterinary surgeons. Veterinary surgeons “could earn up to 60 per cent of their income from sales of medicines”. Surely there was a temptation to oversubscribe, it asked? It accused the policing system, particularly of the black market, of being half hearted.

It was pointed out too that out of 1,100 abattoirs only 90 were up to the standard required by Europe. It was only in those abattoirs that animals were inspected by a veterinary surgeon. There were no routine tests to find if antibiotics or hormones were getting through the system. In Germany antibiotics had been found in meat from the UK. But if more tests were done the price of meat would go up.

In the discussion, Don Haxby, senior vice-president of the BVA, said the message to the consumer was to make sure the meat and poultry was properly cooked before it was eaten. Residues, he said, were being increasingly monitored because of European and UK legislation. The amounts now found were minimal and the techniques for detection were near perfect.

That point was disputed by the “opposition” which represented those who wanted to change to different farming methods. Philip Brown, RSPCA chief veterinary officer, said that farmers would have to come to terms with changes in the industry. Salmonella was not the only problem. And “we were at the bottom of the league when it came to food hygiene”.

Robin Poley, representing the poultry industry, said that to destroy that industry would mean 100,000 unemployed, and the end of a £1,000 million industry and £100 million exports.

Charles Jarvis from the National Farmer’s Union said that the farmer had to produce the maximum from his land, economically and efficiently.

The opposition said that there was no more inefficient way than feeding crops to animals to use for human food.

* Although the EVA was not consulted about the programme, it was able to arrange veterinary participation in the local radio phone-ins. Extensive briefing was provided by the Association’s press secretary.

The Veterinary Record, Vol 104 No 20, May 19, 1979

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