Food safety and quality

Is antimicrobial resistance a food safety issue?


This year the 7-day annual campaign previously known as World Antibiotic Awareness Week has undergone a change in name. World Antimicrobial Awareness Week (WAAW) is taking place on 18-24 November 2020 to promote the reduction of antimicrobial use so as to maintain their efficacy. Every year for the occasion, FAO, alongside the World Health Organization and World Organisation for Animal Health, leads a global information-sharing initiative.

We spoke with Jeffrey LeJeune, FAO Food Safety Officer, to better understand what is at stake and what we can do.

  • Let’s start with: Why did they change the name this year?

Many people are familiar with the word ‘antibiotic’- drugs used to treat bacterial infections. Antimicrobials is a broader term that includes not only antibiotics, but also other drugs that are used to treat other infectious diseases caused by viruses, fungi and single-cell parasites (protozoa). All antimicrobials, not only antibiotics, need to be handled with care.

  • What is antimicrobial resistance?

Antimicrobial resistance, or AMR, is a term used to describe the ability of microorganisms mentioned above, to become insensitive to the drugs that are typically used to control infections.

  • Where is antimicrobial resistance a problem?

Antimicrobial resistant organisms can be found everywhere on earth - in homes and hospitals, on farms, city streets, our hands as well as in remote forest areas and water. If an antimicrobial resistant disease-causing microbe infects a person, plant or animal, it causes a problem because the medicines normally used to treat the infection may not work.

  • How is antimicrobial resistance connected to food?

Because antimicrobial resistant bacteria can be found in live animals, in the soil where plants are grown for food and in the food processing and preparation environment, including the kitchen, they can contaminate food if precautions are not taken to control the cross-contamination. Untreatable antimicrobial resistant infections in plants can kill them, and in food producing animals can reduce productivity. Both may increase food insecurity.

  • Is antimicrobial resistance a food safety issue?

Yes. In many cases, the bacteria responsible for foodborne disease outbreaks are resistant to one or more antimicrobials. If a foodborne illness is caused by a resistant bacteria and causes a sufficiently severe infection that requires treatment, then the treatment may not work and, so what could have been easily treated in the past, can become life threatening. Food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites or toxins at levels high enough that make people sick is unsafe, that would include microbes that are resistant to medicines like antimicrobials.

  • Is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting antimicrobial resistance in any way?

The use of antimicrobials increases the likelihood of antimicrobial resistance development. There is concern that the increased use of antimicrobials to treat human patients with bacterial pneumonia secondary to infections with SARS-CoV-2 may increase AMR. Food-producing animals are not infected with SARS-CoV-2. There is no evidence that more antimicrobials are being used in agriculture as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • What would happen if we do not scale back use of antimicrobials?

The situation is dire. Presently, around the globe, antimicrobial resistant microorganisms claim the lives of about 700 000 people each year. This number continues to grow. If we fail to act, food production will decline and it is estimated that by the year 2050, antimicrobial resistant infections will kill more than 10 million people each year! These impacts will be felt the most in low and middle-income countries of the world where food insecurity is already problematic and health care systems are the weakest.

  • What can food safety authorities do to promote prudent antimicrobial use?

Since AMR can spread in food, Food Safety Authorities have important roles to play in controlling AMR. Regulations, in line with international standards, should only allow for the use of antimicrobials in agriculture that are prudent and judicious. Strengthening food hygiene practices can reduce food contamination and improved monitoring of AMR in food and agriculture can provide early warning of emerging threats and insight for potential control measures.

  • How can consumers help get antimicrobial resistance under control?

Consumers have power to influence how antimicrobials are used in medicine and agriculture and should:

-      Use antimicrobials for themselves or their pets only as prescribed by a doctor or veterinarian. 

-      Purchase foods, when possible, from producers who use minimal antimicrobials, and when doing so, in a judicious fashion.

-      Practise good personal hygiene, such as hand washing with soap and water.

-      Ensure their food is stored and prepared in a clean environment to avoid cross-contamination.

-      Dispose of expired and unused antimicrobials properly: take them to a reclamation site, like a pharmacy. Don’t throw them in the trash or flush them down the toilet.

  • Who needs to take action?

Everyone has role in controlling the emergence and spread of antimicrobial resistance- physicians, food producers, drug manufacturers and consumers, to name a few. Every positive action towards AMR prevention, no matter how small, can help address this huge problem. Antimicrobials- Handle with Care!

 Read more about World Antimicrobial Awareness Week

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