Public health bodies explore livestock and meat links to E.coli

03 July, 2013

Public Health England (PHE) has launched a new research project to establish whether livestock and meat are significant sources of the antibiotic-resistant superbug, ESBL E.coli.

The research is being led by PHE with support from the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, The University of Cardiff, The University of East Anglia, The University of Glasgow, Queen Mary University of London, and Health Protection Scotland. It will investigate various possible reservoirs of the bacteria, including sewage, farm slurry and raw meat, to establish the potential risk to human health.

ESBL E.coli is a type of E.coli that has developed resistance to modern cephalosporin antibiotics, which are widely used as a first-line treatment in hospitals. Studies have suggested that people with ESBL infections are almost three times more likely to die than those infected by non-resistant strains of E.coli.

However, not all strains of ESBL-positive E.coli bacteria cause disease in humans. PHE, which is funded by the Department of Health, hopes the research will help it develop a better understanding of the role that livestock and meat play in human infections.

The research has been welcomed by the Soil Association, which is concerned over the level of ESBL E.coli in British farm animals. However, the organisation pointed out that the research will take three years to complete and said it should not be used as “an excuse to delay action on the overuse of antibiotics in farming”.

Richard Young, Soil Association policy adviser, said: “The UK poultry industry stopped using all cephalosporins antibiotics in January 2012 to limit the spread of ESBL E.coli in chickens. We now need the pig and dairy sectors to take similar action on modern cephalosporins antibiotics in particular.”

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