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  • 05 Feb 2018, 12:30

Intensive poultry farming and the widespread use of antibiotics in India has come under renewed criticism this week following the publication of a report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The study found evidence of considerable use of the antibiotic colistin, which is described by the World Health Organisation as “critically important to human medicine”. The WHO has said it should be restricted in animals and banned as growth promoters.

Yet, the report found thousands of tonnes of veterinary colistin were shipped to countries including Vietnam, South Korea, Russia and India in 2016 and 5 animal pharmaceutical companies in India are openly advertising products containing colistin as growth promoters.

In Europe, colistin is only available to farmers if prescribed by a vet for the treatment of sick animals. Photo: Hans Prinsen

Colistin sold as growth promoter

It highlighted the Indian company Venky’s, which is also a major poultry producer, supplying meat directly and indirectly to fast food chains in India, such as KFC, McDonalds, Pizza Hutt and Dominos.

The report claimed Venky’s sells colistin to farmers in India as a growth promoter with instructions saying the product “improves weight gain” and 50 grams should be added to each ton of chicken feed. The Bureau bought 200g of Colis V – a Venky Colistin product – over the counter from a poultry feed store in Bangalore without a prescription.

In Europe, colistin is only available to farmers if prescribed by a vet for the treatment of sick animals. Venky’s is not breaking the law by selling colistin in India and said it would comply with any future regulatory changes: “Our antibiotic products are for therapeutic use – although some of these in mild doses can be used at a preventative level, which in turn may act as growth promoters.

“We do not encourage indiscriminate use of antibiotics,” it added.

Availability of colistin is worrying

Timothy Walsh, a global expert on antibiotic resistance, called the Bureau’s findings and the availability of colistin “deeply worrying.”

Professor Walsh, who is professor of medical microbiology at Cardiff University, discovered a colistin-resistant gene in Chinese pigs in 2015. The gene, mcr-1, could be transferred within and between species of bacteria. That meant that microbes did not have to develop resistance themselves – they could become resistant just by acquiring the mcr-1 gene.

“Colistin is the last line of defence. It is the only drug we have left to treat critically ill patients with a carbapenem-resistant infection. Giving it to chickens as feed is crazy.

“Colistin-resistant bacteria will spread on the chicken farms, in the air surrounding them, contaminate the meat, spread to the farm workers, and through their faeces flies will spread it over large distances,” he warned