The demand for antibiotic-free food has increased over the years, along with the rise in consumer awareness on environmental and health issues. Antibiotics are conventionally added to livestock feed to treat sick animals, and in certain countries in Asia Pacific (APAC), to prevent them from getting sick and boost their growth. This can eventually lead to long-term adverse effects on animal health, and by extension, the health of humans consuming animal products.
On a global scale, animal consumption of antibiotics trumps that of humans. This figure is expected to grow 67 percent in 13 years through 2030 as India, China, and other developing countries expand livestock production to meet the unprecedented demand for animal protein, according to a Bloomberg report in 2016.
As the high population density of livestock operations today makes the agricultural environment conducive to the rapid dissemination of infectious agents, farmers oftentimes resort to aggressive treatment strategies, including the use of antibiotics.
Routinely using antibiotics in farming and raising livestock could eventually lead to humans contracting antimicrobial or antibiotics resistance through the food chain; the widespread use of antibiotics in our food supply increases the risk of microorganisms, or microbes, developing antibiotic resistance, which reduces the efficacy of antibiotics to treat human infections, earning them the label superbugs.
Antibiotic Resistance Problem In APAC
Antibiotics resistance is fast becoming a global problem. The estimated annual mortality rate from antibiotic resistant bacteria currently stands at 700,000, with this rate expected to rise to 10 million by 2050, according to the O’Neill Report commissioned by the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Asia alone is expected to see up to five million deaths arising from antibiotic resistant bacteria annually by 2050.
Antibiotics resistance is a recurring problem in APAC. Within a decade, pill consumption increased from eight billion pills in 2001 to 12.9 billion in 2010, with demand for antibiotics steadily increasing in India, the world’s antibiotic capital. Three farmers of the 14 farms in one of India’s biggest poultry districts have used colistin to treat bloodstream infections in new-borns, while a staggering number of cattle and seafood farms in Vietnam depend on antibiotics to prevent their animals from contracting diseases.
Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy director Ramanan Laxminarayan also reported that countries like India use antibiotics extensively as a disease prevention measure or a sanitisation and hygiene substitute instead of a mere measure for disease treatment. But using antibiotics in farming and raising livestock has a limit; after all, animals will eventually become dependent on antibiotics to stay in good health, leading to antibiotic overuse, which can cause adverse effects on humans consuming these meat products.
Antibiotic resistance has been labelled as one of the most pressing health concerns in today’s time. Bacteria has mutated and become less responsive to treatment. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be spread to family members, colleagues, schoolmates quickly, thus endangering the community with a new strain of disease that would be more difficult to kill and more expensive to treat.
Young children and adults who suffer from common infections that were once easily treatable with antibiotics may face significant danger and lengthened suffering, due to the microbe developing resistance to the medicine.
One particularly common misconception is that a person’s body becomes resistant to certain drugs; it is however the microbe that becomes antibiotic resistant. When the microbe achieves resistance to many drugs, it becomes extremely difficult or even impossible to treat the infection.
On top of that, someone with an infection that is resistant to a certain medication can pass on the resistant infection to another individual. One way humans can be infected with these resistant bacteria is from handling or eating raw or undercooked food from animals or produce contaminated with resistant bacteria.
It is no wonder that the World Health Organisation declared antibiotic resistance one of the biggest global health threats, as antibiotic overuse in both humans and animals continues to become even more widespread. The president of the UN General Assembly even met with contingents to discuss its “Global Action Plan on antimicrobial resistance,” with assembly speaker, Kate Stone, reporting the high probability of deaths from resistant bacteria exceeding the number of deaths from cancer by 2050 if no actions are taken to address this current health threat.
Remedying The Problem In APAC
Unfortunately, current regulations do not fully address the widespread distribution and use of antibiotics and antimicrobial substances, including banned or restricted antibiotics such as doxycycline and tetracycline.
Key organisations in APAC are working hard to address these lapses. In July last year, the Vietnamese government introduced a new law, subjecting farmers using illegal substances in animal feed antibiotics up to a 20-year maximum incarceration period or fines amounting up to VND3 billion (US$142,800). Meanwhile, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India issued a draft order proposing to stop the use of antibiotics in meat and poultry products, among other strict antibiotic restrictions.
Recognising the urgency of antibiotic resistance, 12 countries in Asia Pacific have also vowed to collaborate toward tackling the issue. Government agencies are using their research and development funds to combat antibiotic resistant bacteria, with some of their work focusing on the study of Beta-lactamases, a family of enzymes involved in bacterial resistance to beta-lactam antibiotics.
Based on the study, Beta-lactamase enzymes act by breaking the beta-lactam ring, which allows penicillin-like antibiotics to work. Hence, one way to combat antibiotic-resistant infections is to use combination therapy, where an antibiotic is administered along with a compound that targets and inhibits known resistance mechanisms such as the beta-lactamase enzymes.
To improve chances of success in the war against antibiotic resistance, governments should work closely with food testing labs to ensure that imported food is not laced with antibiotics. As speedy detection can go a long way toward overcoming health battles associated with the use of antibiotics in foods, food labs need to make use of rapid and selective screening methods, which detect varieties of antibiotic residues, as well as a broad range of levels in food and animals.
Food Testing Through Mass Spectrometry
Confirmatory techniques such as Gas Chromatography- Mass Spectrometry and Liquid chromatography–Mass Spectrometry (LC-MS) are required by labs to test for traces of antibiotics in food, with the latter considered as the gold standard for analytical food testing because of its unparalleled sensitivity, specificity and ability to quantitate a few hundred target compounds in a single analysis.
Current testing methods are based on workflows that are targeted and limited to known compounds. Multiple reaction monitoring (MRM) detection methodology, used in government regulatory labs, is the gold standard which allows detection of very low levels of antibiotics in food samples and identification and quantification of residues in complex food matrices. This allows food testing labs to accurately and definitively test for and detect traces of antibiotics. However, with the increasing trends in emerging contaminants, it’s always a risk not picking up unknown contaminants.
Accurate mass spectrometry systems for surveillance screening of unknown compounds have gained gradual adoption in the last two years, facilitating the easy detection and identification of unpredictable toxic substances outside routine lists.
Mass spectrometry (MS) systems are powerful enough to perform routine monitoring of high-risk, known chemical contaminants and feature the capabilities for finding targeted chemical contaminants with very high specificity.
MS systems can survey food samples for unknown chemical compounds, including environmental contaminants, adulterants (e.g. melamine), chemical by-products (e.g. whey), and even fungal metabolites on top of antibiotics residue.
Aside from regulatory enforcement agencies, even equipment manufacturers are acting to resolve challenges in the food industry.
Equipment manufacturers, such as SCIEX, through supplying reliable and accurate laboratory-based methods and solutions for detecting antibiotics and other contaminants in food, can potentially save lives and ensure a high standard of food that is safe for market consumption.
It takes a whole community to combat antibiotics resistance in APAC, which is becoming a hotbed for the health issue. Governments are issuing legislations and regulations that deter the use of antibiotics in animals raised for human consumption.
Farms are now starting to vaccinate animals to reduce their reliance on antibiotics, abstaining from using antibiotics for promoting growth and preventing diseases in livestock, and using substitutes for antibiotics when needed. They have also been trying to improve hygiene and animal welfare through better biosecurity practices.
Hospitals have been implementing antibiotic stewardship programs (ASPs) directed toward curbing antibiotics resistance, with clinicians tasked to balance ethical obligations in the use of antibiotics. By promoting the moderate use of antibiotics and guarding against patients’ unnecessary exposure to antibiotics, these antibiotic stewardship campaigns help preserve the efficacy of antibiotics in treating complex diseases.
But hospitals, governments, and the agricultural sector are not the only ones jumping on the bandwagon in the war against antibiotics resistance; food labs today have an increasingly relevant role to play in taking steps to limit its spread. After all, antibiotic-resistant microorganisms in food animals can enter the food chain and pose adverse health risks to humans consuming certain food products.
Truly, nipping antibiotics resistance in the bud is the only way to combat this health problem. Therefore, food labs are increasingly leveraging LC-MS technology to ensure the absence of antibiotics residue in food.
Now emerging to be the gold standard for food testing, LC-MS also tests for other contaminants such as mycotoxins while testing for antibiotics resistance, easily detecting substances that pose health risks in food products.