Are superbugs entering our food supply?

Posted by Editorial on 15th January 2009

A Federal Government survey has discovered bacteria levels in some raw meats to be higher than expected, according to The Australian, which claimed the results of the survey had been withheld due to concerns about the potential impact on Christmas sales. The survey, did, however, establish ‘superbugs’ were not yet prevalent in Australian food.
Escherichia coli, commonly known as E.coli, was found in 69 per cent of poultry, 29.7 per cent of beef and 18.1 per cent of pork, but only 1 per cent of lettuce. Enterococcus faecalis was found in 96.6 per cent of poultry, 95.7 per cent of beef and 86 per cent of pork, The Australian reported. It should be noted that most strains of E.coli – commonly found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded animals – are harmless, but it can cause gastroenteritis when food is not handled and prepared in a safe manner. Illness resulting from poor food handling leading to E.coli contamination typically can be eliminated with antibiotics. Last year, Australian Food News reported on the potential of spices to quell foodborne diseases such as E.coli.

The study, completed by Food Science Australia on behalf of the Food Regulation Standing Committee, was additionally looking into the possible infiltration of so-called “superbugs” – which are resistant to antibiotics – into the food supply.

While the survey found more than 15 per cent of the E.coli in poultry and pork were resistant to three common antibiotics, and a greater proportion of the Enterococcus faecalis resistant to two antibiotics, almost none were resistant to stronger drugs, The Australian reported.

Fortunately, the potentially deadly superbug vancomycin resistant enterococci, the bacteria which forced 13 patients at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital into isolation and was found to have infected four more people in hospitals on NSW’s central coast, was not found.

A government spokeswoman reported that superbugs remained more of an issue in other countries, while adding that the bacteria levels were not alarming. “The pilot survey supports Australia’s more rigorous approach to controlling the amounts and types of antibiotics used in our food animal industries, which is an important factor that helps prevent the development and spread of resistant bacteria,” she told The Australian.

The findings were provided in a report to the Department of Health and Ageing that was expected to have been released by the end of November last year, but when The Australian requested for a copy under Freedom of Information laws, the Department advised of a delay, the paper suggested. The delay had reportedly been caused by the Food Regulation Standing Committee agreeing to an industry request to suppress the findings until after the peak Christmas period had ended.