Antibiotics resistance a key piece of the puzzle

White chicken standing by a feeder in a shed
Image credit – Farmwatch

We’re staring down the barrel of a gun, but this isn’t a gun that can kill one person or even half a dozen. This gun has the potential to kill ten million people a year. This is what economists estimate will be the loss of life by 2050, globally, if we don’t urgently turn away from the overuse of antibiotics. 

Antibiotic resistance is a threat stalking us like a remarkably quiet elephant moving through the room. 

There isn’t a silver bullet that covers the complete answer to this health crisis. There is, however, a solution that has been highlighted, most recently, in a report published recently by World Animal Protection, the Pecking Order.

First, let me explain a bit more about what is happening. 

Most of us know that antibiotics are drugs that kill bacteria. We’ve been using them widely for 200 years and they probably have extended our lives 20 years, compared with our forebears. I think everyone has heard the term antibiotic resistance. But how does it happen? 

While I have degrees in biology I’m certainly no expert, so I look to the wise words of experts in this space. 

Dr Heather Hendrickson is a Senior Lecturer in Molecular Bioscience at Massey University and Vice President of the New Zealand Microbiological Society.

In this article, Dr Hendrickson explains that antibiotic resistance is what takes place when a random mutation or different version of a gene is acquired by a bacterium from another, which allows it to resist being killed or slowed down by an antibiotic. We’ve seen how good the COVID 19 virus is at evolving new variants. Bacteria do the same which can spread the resistant gene, even to unrelated bacteria. 

While not all gene transfers give antibiotic resistance, our misuse of antibiotics creates the perfect storm for spreading the dangerous resistant bacteria. The more antibiotics that are used, the more chance there is for them to spread a resistant mutation. Then the fun begins – for the bacteria, not for us. 

Cartoon of green smiling bacterium.

There are two main ways we misuse these crucial drugs. The first is people using them when they don’t need to. The second is feeding antibiotics by the tonne to farmed animals.

There is a need for occasional careful use of these medications to treat an acute infection in an animal, but I’m talking about the routine, mass feeding of antibiotics to keep animals alive inside factory farms. These drugs are used as a preventative measure, basically to make it possible to keep animals in cramped, dirty conditions. This type of mass treatment is very common, even when animals may not actually have a bacterial infection. 

The main recipients of antibiotics are the roughly 120 million chickens bred for meat in New Zealand. There are a small number of chickens sold under the Bostock Brothers, Waitoa Free Range and Macro Free Range brands that aren’t routinely fed antibiotics, but they are the exception.

Part of the reason most chickens are given antibiotics is so they can survive in sheds where they have to sit and stand in excrement-filled litter for the whole of their lives. The more birds crammed in, the more profit per metre. They can be packed in more tightly than a hen in a battery cage! These conditions cause the chickens stress, and stress weakens their immune systems. The antibiotics are needed to prevent necrotic enteritis in their guts, but this problem would be very rare if the chickens weren’t under so much stress. 

Another reason chickens are given antibiotics is due to vulnerability to infection, caused by their unnaturally fast growth. Modern ‘meat’ chickens are highly selectively bred to double in size every week. Their bodies are pushed beyond their limits, maximising their speed of growth. They go for slaughter at only four to six weeks old. 

This explosively fast growth puts severe demands on their survivability. Thousands of chickens die every day in sheds around Aotearoa. Without antibiotics, fast-grow breeds in these factory farming conditions would see so many birds dying prematurely, it could make chicken farming unviable. 

Black cartoon chicken with disease organisms inside.

Chickens outnumber all our other farmed land animals combined. The routine feeding of antibiotics to chickens creates 120 million chances for antibiotic-resistant bugs to escape the sheds, into the soil and groundwater. That’s 120 million chances for resistant bacteria to pass to a slaughterhouse worker and spread through community transmission. Dr Hendrickson says drug-resistant bacteria carried in faeces or on the animal’s body through the slaughter process could also be brought into homes with the meat and spread to people. 

While the zinc bacitracin commonly used in chicken food is not currently on the WHO list of critical drugs, this is not a panacea to keep us safe. To use Dr Hendrickson’s explanation, the way bacteria become resistant to antibiotics varies, but bacteria can become resistant in a way that will stop a range of antibiotics (even ones important for treating illness in humans) from working. The bacterial cell creates little pumps outside their cells that can evolve to recognise the drug and toss it back out. The pumps can be specific ones or more generalised pumps that will stop a range of antibiotics from functioning. 

And what are the human consequences of this? We could end up back in the dark ages where a child dies from a cut on their finger because antibiotics have lost their effectiveness. We could be seeing more people die every year from untreatable infections than currently die of cancer. Surgical operations could become a game of chance as to whether a simple infection kills us or not.

Person with latex gloves bandaging a child's injured finger.

​That’s a pretty gloomy picture I’ve painted. So, here is the good news.

As highlighted in the Pecking Order, by changing the breed of chicken used and giving them better living conditions, they will survive with much reduced need, if any, for antibiotics. 

The Dutch poultry industry has successfully shown this can be done. The results of a Wageningen University study in 2019 show that slower-growing breeds used three times less antibiotics than intensive fast-growing breeds. The research concluded that improving animal welfare, (using slower-growing breeds and lower stocking density), contributes to a significant decrease in antibiotic usage, while maintaining the economic performance of the chicken farms.

This is win/win – good news for chickens and for us. The global trend to replace fast-grow chicken breeds with slower-growing, higher welfare breeds is overdue in New Zealand. In 2017, the Government’s animal welfare advisory committee, NAWAC, described fast-growing breeds as, “beyond a point that is compatible with survivability.”

Image of four white chickens, two are in focus.Text: Better Chicken Commitment: provide more space for each individual bird; use chicken breeds that grow at a more natural rate, so are healthier; provide a better environment including natural light, perches to rest on, and a variety of other enrichments. *ALERTS: Long alternative textALERTS: Suspicious alternative text*Image of four white chickens, two are in focus.Text: Better Chicken Commitment: provide more space for each individual bird; use chicken breeds that grow at a more natural rate, so are healthier; provide a better environment including natural light, perches to rest on, and a variety of other enrichments.
Image credit – RSPCA UK: RSPCA Assured

So, what are we waiting for? Hundreds of food suppliers overseas including Burger King, KFC, Subway, and dozens of supermarket chains, have already made these policies. The Better Chicken Commitment is a set of standards to create the same positive change for animals in Aotearoa; for businesses to extend their corporate social responsibility to chickens bred for meat AND an opportunity to significantly reduce antibiotic use in this country. 
We can dodge the bullet by eliminating unnecessary antibiotic use, but this won’t happen without drastic action. It’s up to household names like Countdown and New World to use their power to shift the chicken industry to improve conditions and progress to slower-growing, healthier birds. I look forward to having a kōrero with them in the near future.

Take Action – Put an end to NZ chicken cruelty

Chickens bred for meat are bred to suffer.

A white chicken with dirty feathers, lying on the dirty floor of a shed. Their left leg is swollen and splayed out to the side.

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