Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a major global public health concern. The excessive use of antibiotics in farmed animals is one of the leading sources of AMR infection in humans. Antibiotic-resistant illnesses kill more than 700,000 people each year and are expected to outnumber cancer deaths by 2050. This is because antibiotic-resistant illnesses are difficult to treat with existing antibiotic regimens. The most common pathogens responsible for AMR-related mortality are Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Acinetobacter aaumannii, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
AMR is a global pandemic, yet it is also preventable. National governments have recognized that understanding AMR's manifestation, transmission, prevention, and treatment is crucial to halting its spread. To prevent the spread of AMR, all food supply chain partners must engage and collaborate to ensure the safety of meat throughout the meat supply chain. Consumers are critical in the fight against AMR, and they must recognize the significance of their role. By safeguarding themselves from AMR infections caused by meat and meat products, consumers can contribute to reducing the AMR threat.
Before discussing how consumers can protect themselves from AMR infections, it is valuable to examine how AMR manifests in farm animals and spreads to humans through the food supply chain.
When farm animals are given excessive amounts of antibiotics in pure drug form or in antibiotic-laced feed, whether for illness prevention or treatment, the bacteria in their gut flora are exposed to antimicrobials. Repeated antibiotic exposure changes the genetic makeup of bacteria, making them resistant to antibiotics. Worse, the overuse of antibiotics causes antibiotic residues to accumulate in animals' bodily tissues. According to research, antibiotic residues are found not just in meat, but also in milk and eggs. Milk and dairy fermented foods have also been linked to AMR infections.
When farmed animals infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria are slaughtered and processed, resistant bacteria can contaminate meat and other animal products at slaughterhouses and processing plants. Antimicrobial-resistant bacteria are passed on to humans through the consumption of contaminated meat and meat products, resulting in antibiotic-resistant illnesses. Furthermore, humans are exposed to more antibiotics when they ingest meat containing antibiotic residues. Several antibiotics, including ciprofloxacin, streptomycin, tetracycline, and sulfonamide, have been approved for use in livestock and poultry production to treat disease conditions (therapeutic usage), prevent disease manifestation (prophylactic usage), and promote growth. It is important to highlight that all of these antibiotics are also administered to humans; thus, humans are constantly exposed to them. Exposure to safe levels of antibiotic residues poses no risk to human health, but exposure to higher levels alter human intestinal microbiota, allowing resistant bacteria to thrive and colonize the intestine and leading to increasingly difficult-to-treat antimicrobial-resistant illnesses.
Mitigating AMR Threats
Consumers can help protect themselves from AMR infections caused by meat and animal products. The most effective way to protect against AMR infections is to prevent them. Consumers can take steps such as purchasing antibiotic-free or organic meat, consuming meat and animal products in moderation, and following personal hygiene and safe food handling practices. Experts advise consuming meat and meat products in moderation, limiting daily consumption to 40 g–70 g per person. On the other hand, lowering meat consumption to that level will significantly cut antibiotic use on animal farms. In addition to following meat intake guidelines, customers must use proper food handling procedures when handling meat and meat products, including:
- Washing and sanitizing cutting boards, knives, utensils, and work surfaces that come into contact with raw meat before preparing ready-to-eat products such as fruits and vegetables. Another option is to use separate cutting boards for raw meats, cooked food, and ready-to-eat items. This reduces the possibility of cross-contamination.
- Replacing worn-out cutting boards because germs can hide in the grooves. Cutting boards constructed of hard wood and that are less porous are recommended by experts. Hard maple and birch wood are safer options.
- Avoid putting cooked or ready-to-eat food back on a plate that was holding raw meat.
- Washing hands after handling raw meat, poultry, and seafood and before working with fruits, vegetables, and other ready-to-eat foods, since pathogens can be introduced into food through contaminated hands.
- Not washing meat or poultry before cooking. Washing meat (including chicken) can cause harmful germs from raw meat to splatter onto and contaminate surrounding surfaces. Meat and poultry are cleaned and washed in antimicrobial agents during processing, so no additional washing is required.
- Cooking meat and meat products to safe recommended temperatures, which kills both resistant and non-resistant bacteria.
- Storing raw meat in the bottom of the refrigerator, tightly wrapped or in airtight containers, to avoid meat juices seeping on and contaminating other food items.
Meat Supply Chain Efforts
Meat supply chain actors have shown their commitment to reducing the AMR threat by ensuring that contaminated meat and meat products do not enter the meat supply chain. Many livestock farmers have implemented animal welfare initiatives on their farms to lessen their need for antibiotics.
Slaughterhouses and meat processing plants help by ensuring that animals are slaughtered and the meat is processed under sanitary conditions, and that meat with antibiotic residues above the acceptable limit is not marketed.
Foodservice providers have also demonstrated commitment to preventing the transmission of AMR infections to humans. A few have started offering organic and antibiotic-free meat and meat products on their menus; however, due to operational concerns, this has not yet become a widespread practice. More needs to be done on a global scale.
Consumers play an important role in combating the AMR crisis. They must protect themselves in order to prevent the spread of AMR. This can be achieved by selecting safer meat alternatives, eating reasonable amounts of meat and meat products, and following safe food handling procedures. Since addressing the AMR pandemic is a shared responsibility, all food supply chain participants are critical in minimizing the threats posed by AMR.