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MRSA "superbug" found in British cattle

By Nicholas Robinson , 02-Jan-2013
Last updated the 03-Jan-2013 at 10:20 GMT

Food and farming charity The Soil Association has called on the British government to investigate the bacteria MRSA in UK farm animals, as well as the claimed overuse of antibiotics in farming.

According to scientists with the Soil Association, the call followed the release of research from the University of Cambridge which revealed that, since MRSA ST398 was first found in 2003 in pigs in the Netherlands, it has become an epidemic in European and North American pig herds, and has since been found in UK livestock.

The Soil Association claimed experts had said the bug could spread to poultry within the UK and have confirmed that MRSA ST398 had not been found in British food animals previously. However, they said very little testing had been carried out in the UK compared to other EU countries.

It has also been noted that the superbug can cause serious, and occasionally deadly, infections in humans, as well as being a cause of mastitis in cows. The Soil Association claimed the high level of antibiotic resistance had now made the infection difficult to treat.

Meat from calves affected by the bug could also be contaminated with the virus and enter the food chain, the Soil Association said. And the emergence of the superbug in cattle could also lead to British pigs and poultry becoming affected.

Wake up call

Soil Association policy advisor Richard Young said: “This should be a wake-up call for Defra. The European Food Safety Authority recently called on all member states to carry out regular monitoring of poultry, pigs and dairy cattle for MRSA, but unlike other countries, the UK continues to ignore this request. We are lucky independent researchers identified this problem at an early stage. We are calling for comprehensive surveillance to be established before it gets out of hand.”

Young also explained that Defra should deal with the problem of waste milk containing high levels of antibiotic residues, which is deemed unfit for human consumption and usually fed to calves. “There is strong evidence this has contributed to the spread of other superbugs, such as ESBL E.coli, and it is also likely to make the MRSA problem on dairy farms much worse,” he said.

“We also need much stricter controls on the use of the modern cephalosporins. These antibiotics are classified by the World Health Organisation as critically important in human medicine, yet they continue to be used routinely on many cattle and pig farms. There has been a 400% increase in the use of these antibiotics on British farms over the last decade and similar increases have occurred abroad. Many scientists believe this to be the main reason for the growing MRSA problem in livestock.”

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