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Alarm bells toll across farms

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on December 22, 2017
Upside down: Introducing antibiotics into the poultry diet becomes inevitable since the birds are often kept in cramped and unhygienic conditions. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Upside down: Introducing antibiotics into the poultry diet becomes inevitable since the birds are often kept in cramped and unhygienic conditions. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury   -  The Hindu

We are what we eat: The study has raised serious doubts about the quality of chicken and egg being consumed in India. Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

We are what we eat: The study has raised serious doubts about the quality of chicken and egg being consumed in India. Photo: Mohammed Yousuf   -  The Hindu

Vicious cycle: Chickens are reared at a constant temperature to maximise production. As a result, exposure to temperatures that they are not used to leads to them protracting infections. Photo: V Ganesan

Vicious cycle: Chickens are reared at a constant temperature to maximise production. As a result, exposure to temperatures that they are not used to leads to them protracting infections. Photo: V Ganesan   -  The Hindu

A recent study confirms the use of antibiotics in poultry to boost growth. But are we ready to tackle the issue head-on and be responsible producers and consumers?

At Pal Dhaba, Chandigarh, chicken and meat come in daily for their customers. The iconic outlet is very particular about where they source their meat from. The shop owner is proud of the dhaba’s USP — butter chicken prepared according to a secret family heirloom recipe, and cooked using ‘ desi murgi’ (country chicken) — the dhaba’s alternative to broiler chickens. It is generally accepted that desi murgi, thought to be bred in smaller quantities, and on organic feed, is healthier than the assembly-line broiler chickens, though no reports exist as of now to confirm this. However, if you go by a recent report that looks into the poultry farming practices in Punjab, there are worrying signs everywhere.

At Batla House, near Jamia Nagar in Delhi, a plate of chicken biryani is sold at ₹140 a kilo. Chickens are reared locally, and fed on a mix of chicken feed and grains, claim shopkeepers who sell meat in shops close to a bunch of small eateries. Reared in cages, with hardly any space to breathe, these chickens have a far worse deal than the free-range ones popularised by the health and lifestyle industry. For now, free-range chicken remains a luxury for most. A customer at an eatery in Jamia Nagar says, “The meat is buried under the gravy. Who is to tell what is underneath?”

And that question is now on everyone’s mind. The answer though is not encouraging. A study conducted by the New Delhi-based Centre of Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy (CDDEP) has raised serious doubts about the quality of chicken and egg being consumed in India today. The study, the largest of its kind to be conducted in India, and published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives in July, collected more than 1,500 samples from 530 birds across 18 poultry farms in Punjab, and tested them for a range of antibiotics that are critical in regular human medicine. It found that two-thirds of the farms from where samples were taken were using antimicrobials as growth boosters. The birds were tested for resistance to a range of 11 antibiotics critical to human medicine. Tetracyclines and fluoroquinolones, antibiotics commonly used to treat cholera, malaria, respiratory and urinary tract infections in humans, were found to be the most common antimicrobials used as boosters. the study claims that the farmers admitted to its use.

In an interview to IndiaSpend, Ramanan Laxminarayan, author of the study and director CDDEP, said it wasn’t just farmers who were at fault. A lot of poultry feed came pre-mixed with antibiotics. Low consumer awareness went hand-in-hand with the farmers’ ignorance. The dangers of mixing antibiotics with chicken feed were missed on them, and the lack of cognisance at the policy level didn’t help either. When contacted, every poultry feed company denied this fact. Ravi, who only gives his first name and works at Shanthi Foods, a poultry feed farm in Delhi, says feed is not packed with antibiotics at the onset, and is an additive, usually bought over the counter by farmers. “The main ingredient in feed is soya, and maize is added as well.”

The farmers BL ink spoke to were loath to answer. However, many farms are now coming out with organic produce, and sell chicken reared on pesticide-free feed and without medical interference. Since organic products are priced way above the regular produce, it is often beyond the reach of the common man. On an average, eggs cost ₹120 a dozen, while an organic egg will cost at least double. Add to it the limited access to organic food, and the impossibility of ensuring authenticity.

The CDDEP report concludes that by consuming eggs and chicken meat laced with antibiotics, we are risking a population growing rapidly resistant to antibiotics. The report, however, also points out that there are no rules governing what poultry should be fed. It highlights the absence of any statutory regulations to prescribe the standard, quality and quantity of food for poultry in India, thus leading to rampant use of antibiotics in poultry feed.

The report also raises another red flag. It points out the over 300 per cent rise in the use of antibiotics in poultry farming in the past decade. It is necessitated by the conditions under which the birds are raised. They are reared at a constant temperature to maximise production. As a result, exposure to temperatures that they are unused to leads to them protracting infections. To avoid such instances, poultry is fed antibiotics to boost immunity. Consuming antibiotics-laced chicken is potentially fatal for humans as it increases their resistance to such medicines.

The Tata Memorial Centre (TMC) in Mumbai has undertaken extensive research on the subject in recent years and the recommendations made by the centre’s scientists find mention in the Law Commission’s draft report. In it, the scientists point out antibiotics are introduced to the diet since the birds are kept in cramped and unhygienic conditions. The TMC had submitted the suggestions of the scientists to the Law Commission panel in which they had stated that many Indians have developed drug resistance since non-therapeutic drugs were being administered to poultry.

In its new draft report brought out in July, the Law Commission has put out recommendations — ‘The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Egg Laying Hens) Rules, 2017’ and ‘The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Broiler Chicken) Rules, 2017’ — for the Central and State governments to regulate chicken farming. It has recommended a ban on administering antibiotics directly, and directs that “antibiotics, including coccidiostats, shall not be administered except under the supervision of a veterinarian”.

This isn’t the first time the issue is surfacing in public. In June 2014, the department of animal husbandry, dairying and fisheries had issued an advisory to State animal husbandry departments to avoid administering antibiotics. However, change is yet to come at policy level. The draft itself is a result of Maneka Gandhi, Union minister, urging the law ministry to look into the matter. The Law Commission’s regulations are intended also to put an end to the practice of keeping chickens in battery cages. It recommends that the animal husbandry department in different States make distinctions in produce obtained from cage-free farms, and those reared in cages.

It was a chance discovery by scientists in the US in the 1950s that feeding animals antibiotics accelerated their growth. Since then, it has been widely abused in the animal husbandry industry. However, while many Western countries have brought in regulation to monitor drug abuse in poultry farming, not so in India.

Laxminarayan says, “This study has serious implications, not only for India but globally.” According to him, “ We must remove antibiotics from the human food chain, except to treat sick animals, or face the increasingly real prospect of a post-antibiotic world.”

Supradip Ghosh, director and head of department, critical care in Fortis Escorts Hospital Faridabad, agrees, “The biggest threat facing mankind right now is the possibility of an antibiotic-less future. Hence, it is essential that we put a stop to this.”

Kaushik, a scientist researching on the effects of drug resistance, however doesn’t consider antibiotics-fed chicken to be the core problem. “It depends on the quantities in which the chicken is consumed, and the methods used to cook, before we analyse the extent or risks of drug resistance. In Indian cooking, we usually char or fry the meat, at which point, many antibiotics that are sensitive to heat disintegrate. If it is present in quantities that is minimal compared to the dosages required by the human body, it may pass through without doing much harm. What is more dangerous here is the environment of a chicken farm.” He adds, “It is a malpractice because the environment in which the chicken is bred will be full of drug-resistant bacteria, which have developed due to the presence of antibiotics. Even the crops grown in such an area is at stake, since it may have the same strains of drug-resistant bacteria. If chicken is slaughtered and stored in the open, then they may be laced with antibiotics to prevent them from going bad.”

It is imperative to consume with a conscience, and promote sustainable farming practices as producers and consumers. Quick actions are needed at the policy level. As Kaushik says, “It’s important to care where your produce is coming from. It is not only caring for the environment, but also your health at the same time.”

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Published on December 22, 2017
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