The Drugs Pumped Into Supermarket Chickens
Every second of every day, somewhere in the world the same scene unfolds. A batch of several hundred eggs, precisely arranged in uniform rows, moves along a conveyor belt, coming to a halt beneath a machine linked to a jumble of tubes. Once in position, the machine robotically lowers itself and then simultaneously punctures each egg with a rack of hypodermic needles.
Through these needles, a mix of vaccines and antibiotics is injected into the egg — and so into the unborn chick inside, which three days later will hatch out. If the scene sounds like something from a science-fiction film, then that is hardly a surprise. Today, large-scale poultry production has precious little to do with green fields and ruddy-cheeked farmers. Every year, more than 40 billion chickens are slaughtered worldwide for meat, the vast majority of them intensively factory-farmed. The bottom line is profit. All that matters is the volume in which these animals, bred to hit their genetically-modified slaughter weights within 35 days of hatching, can be churned out.
Given the intensity of the production systems (raised in sheds of 50,000 birds, each will be lucky to have the space of a piece of A4 paper in which to live), the dangers of disease are massively magnified. And so it is to prevent this that the chickens are vaccinated before birth against common diseases. They are often also dosed up with antibiotics — a preventative measure that is easier and cheaper than dealing with individual illnesses at a later date. In Britain, consumers can’t get enough of cheap chicken. On average, we eat 31 kilos per person per year — which is more than any other country in Europe.
With a budget supermarket chicken today available for less than £2.50 per bird, cost is one of the drivers behind its ever-growing popularity. Not only that, but with the horsemeat scandal still fresh in consumers’ minds and the fact that chicken is lower in fat than red meat, it is also seen as a ‘healthy’ option. How deeply ironic then that scientists now believe that the nation’s love affair with the fowl could be about to trigger a devastating health crisis of its own. Forget the fact that last month it emerged that food poisoning cases linked to infected chicken — thanks to a bug called campylobacter — struck down 580,000 people last year, putting 18,000 in hospital and killing 140. Now experts are warning that the overuse of antibiotics in poultry farms around the world is creating a generation of superbugs that are resistant to treatment by virtually every drug in the medical establishment’s armoury.
With up to 80 per cent of the raw chicken on sale in some countries carrying these resistant bacteria, they can be transferred to humans during the handling of infected meat or the eating of undercooked produce. The bacteria will then survive in the gut before potentially triggering illnesses such as persistent urinary infections or, more seriously, blood poisoning, also known as sepsis. A newly-published report claims that as a direct result of this, 1,500 lives are being lost in Europe each year — with 280 of them in this country alone. But the fear is that, as the resistant bugs spread, the death toll will rise as more and more antibiotics become ineffective.
‘We have people dying who do not need to die, because you should not be using these drugs in food animals at all, particularly in poultry,’ says Peter Collignon, a world authority on the subject and professor of infectious diseases at the Australian National University. ‘It is a practice we must not allow to continue, because basically there are no more antibiotics in the pipeline coming along to rescue us. The farming industry’s argument is that if they don’t do this, then one or two per cent of their flocks might die after they hatch. My view of that is “bad luck”.
‘A one or two-day-old chick that dies is worth a fraction of a penny. A human being is worth a million times more than a chicken — so we just shouldn’t do it.’ Someone who knows first-hand the dangers posed by the infections that scientists are warning of is life coach Susie Wiggins.
In March last year, the 53-year-old from Northwood, Middlesex, headed into Central London to meet a girlfriend for lunch at an upmarket restaurant. ‘We were going on to an exhibition afterwards and I was dressed up to the nines — four-inch heels, full make-up — and was feeling absolutely fine,’ she says. ‘But as we sat down for lunch I started to feel very ill, very quickly. I had unbelievable cramping in my stomach, went to the loo and when I came back I was rambling and talking nonsense.’
Realising something was seriously wrong, Miss Wiggins’ friend immediately took her to Guy’s Hospital. Within hours she was unconscious and in intensive care. ‘Basically, the pain I felt was my organs starting to shut down,’ she says. ‘I was in a coma for two weeks, during which time my hands and feet swelled up and turned black. ‘The doctors were so worried I would die that they arranged a room for my mother to stay in so she could be with me when it happened.’
That Miss Wiggins survived was down to the fact that the doctors had quickly spotted that she was suffering from sepsis. The condition strikes hard and fast and kills 37,000 people a year in the UK.
Treatment is with antibiotics, but one of the emerging problems today is finding the right one to use.