A steady rise in per capita income, growing urban population and falling retail prices of chicken meat have made poultry production one of the fastest growing segments of the agricultural sector in India today. As a result, India is now the world's fifth largest egg producer and the eighteenth largest producer of broilers. All this rapid expansion has however come at a high cost. The indiscriminate use of antibiotics, for growth promotion in particular in other words to ‘fatten chicken’, is fueling antibiotic resistance in the country.
Antibiotics as “growth promoters”
In October this year, Zoetis, the world’s largest animal drugs company was accused of selling antibiotics to Indian poultry farmers as “growth promoters”, a practice which though legal in India, is banned in many other parts of the world.
An investigation by the Indian newspaper The Hindu and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found the veterinary drug producer continues to sell antibiotics directly to farmers with claims on the company’s Indian website that they will make them grow “bigger and faster”.
Double standards – different policies in different countries
Health professionals helping raise awareness about spreading antibiotic resistance are objecting to the double standards being followed by Zoetis, a former subsidiary of the global pharma giant Pfizer. They refer to the fact that the company stopped advertising antibiotics as growth promoters to American farmers almost two years ago and publicly supported new laws in the U.S. banning this abuse of antibiotics as part of its “continued commitment to antibiotic stewardship”.
“If an American company follows one policy in America, they should follow the same policy in India,”
said Dr Abdul Ghafur, an infectious diseases specialist, who brought together medical societies and the Indian government in 2012 to create a plan to tackle antibiotic resistance, known as the Chennai Declaration.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for an end to use of antibiotics as growth promoters in food-animal production, as there is evidence to show this fuels emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance.
Colistin pushed by feed companies
In January this year The Hindu and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism had also revealed at least five companies across India were marketing feed products containing colistin to farmers to make chickens and pigs grow fatter, a practice known as growth promotion.
Colistin is categorised as “critically important in human medicine” by the WHO and is one of few drugs which still works when a patient is critically ill with an infection resistant to all other antibiotics. Giving colistin to healthy animals to promote growth is against WHO guidelines as it breeds colistin-resistant superbugs, which can cause fatal infections in humans.
Within the last ten years, around 70% of broiler enterprises in India have shifted to the “integrator” model, in which they own all the hatcheries, feed mills, and slaughter facilities, and contract multiple smaller farmers to raise and supply the chicks primarily in open air sheds. These integrators often supply feed, provide veterinary advice and prescribe standards to the contracted farmers. At the end of the production cycle, the live birds either are purchased by the integrators for slaughter and further processing, or by a middleman/wholesaler, eventually arriving at a live bird wet market for local sale.
Anxiety drives antibiotic use
The packaged feed given to chicken very often contains antibiotics, as either prophylactics or growth promoters, that are critically important for human health. With increasing production the use of overuse of these drugs is also driven by anxiety about diseases, though many of which are viral in origin on which antibiotics have no therapeutic impact.
India among top consumers worldwide
A recent study estimating global antibiotic use in poultry, swine and cattle in 2010 indicates that India accounts for 3% of global consumption and is among the top consumers worldwide, along with China, the United States, Brazil and Germany. Projections for 2030 estimate an overall increase of about two-thirds in animal antibiotic consumption worldwide.
The use of antibiotics in animal feed, the study said, will increase by 82% in India by 2030, such use in chickens, in particular, is expected to triple in India by 2030. The study found that globally penicillin, tetracyclines and quinolones are some of the most widely used antibiotics, with the use of these antibiotics higher in countries with meat-heavy diets. Poultry feed in particular is big business as it accounts for 58 percent of the total animal feed market in India.
The New Delhi-based non-profit Center for Science and the Environment has done several studies, which found significant amounts of antibiotic residues in poultry sold in Indian markets and multi-drug resistant bacteria in and around poultry farms.
These studies have increased public awareness about the hazards of using antibiotics, many also important in human health, for production of food animals.
Van Boeckel TP, Brower C, Gilbert M, et al. Global trends in antimicrobial use in food animals. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2015;112(18):5649-5654.
INDIAN FEED INDUSTRY: Revitalizing Nutritional Security. 2015. FASAR (Food and Agribusiness Strategic Advisory and Research) Team, YES Bank
Chandra Bhushan, Amit Khurana, Rajeshwari Sinha and Mouna Nagaraju, 2017, Antibiotic Resistance in Poultry Environment: Spread of Resistance from Poultry Farm to Agricultural Field, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi
Antibiotic resistance in poultry environment – Spread of Resistance from Poultry Farm to Agricultural Field Based on CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Laboratory Study: Antibiotic Resistance in Poultry Environment.