Antibiotics and Industry Pressure in New Zealand

Lest you think corporate interference in public health policy is solely a U.S. problem, New Zealand is suffering a brain drain in the area of antibiotic resistance research due to political pressure hindering research on the effects of antbiotic use in agriculture. Worldwide, antibiotics are widely used in poultry production, but in the U.S., there was a successful attempt to ban the use of enrofloxacin (a ciprofloxacin analogue commonly known as "Cipro") in poultry production (enrofloxacin is already banned in other forms of meat production).

From the Sunday Star Times:

Scientists say funding problems, covert bullying and a lack of co-operation from the poultry industry are hampering research into health risks associated with chicken.

Their claims are hotly denied by the Poultry Industry Association and health officials.

Many scientists working on problems including antibiotic resistance in chicken and campylobacter infection, which causes stomach cramps and diarrhoea, have given up or gone overseas in frustration.

The poultry industry and New Zealand Food Safety Authority say they are working hard and committing significant resources to the problems, but there were no easy solutions. "We're doing as much as we can as fast as we can," NZFSA spokeswoman Diane Robinson said.

This month, the Sunday Star- Times reported that Otago University scientists wanted a ban on the sale of fresh chicken to curb our rocketing campylobacter epidemic. They found up to 90% of the country's chicken is swarming with the disease, and human infection rates here are the highest in the world.

After the Star-Times' story, the Poultry Industry Association issued a statement attacking scientist Michael Baker's research, calling it "a knee-jerk reaction to unsubstantiated comments".

In response, Baker said: "This does feel like they're shooting the messenger when people have known about this health hazard for years and haven't spoken out."

Campylobacter expert John Klena, who was on a Health Ministry campylobacter working group until he left New Zealand in 2002, says the industry practises "covert bullying". Klena, now based in Egypt, said the poultry industry blocked his research at every turn, restricting access to data, to farms, and to strains of disease. "That was one of the biggest frustrations. It was always a defensive attitude from the poultry industry."

In contrast, he said, the dairy industry was very helpful and wanted to remove any campylobacter from its products.

Klena said many former colleagues had given up their research in frustration or gone overseas. "When you see obvious research problems that aren't being addressed, how can you keep going on?"

Otago University microbiologist Greg Cook, who found antibiotic resistant bacteria in chicken could be passed to humans, has abandoned the work after being unable to get funding. Cook had hoped his work would lead to eradicating the dangerous bugs, but believed until the bacteria appeared in hospitals, no one would fund further work.

Cook said the NZFSA seemed to be doing nothing about it.

"In my view, the NZFSA or the poultry industry weren't interested in solving the problem (of antibiotic resistant bacteria). It's the same with campylobacter," Cook said. "They just don't care. If this was an export market their whole attitude would be completely different."

Mike Brooks, of the Poultry Industry Association, strongly disputed Klena's claims, saying the association worked with the government, scientists, and on its own projects to reduce campylobacter. Brooks said the industry put money into research which, when combined with the hours of technical experts, "would be (worth) at least a six-figure sum".

90% of New Zealand broilers are infected with Campylobacter? In the U.S., it's roughly 70%. New Zealand, we have a problem...

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