Press Release | 27 October 2020

Study: More than one in two chickens from Europe's largest poultry slaughterhouses contaminated with antibiotic-resistant pathogens

Poultry company PHW most heavily contaminated with almost 60 per cent of contaminated meat samples / Study commissioned by Germanwatch and human medicine specialists tests 165 chicken meat samples from the three largest groups in the EU, purchased among others from Lidl and Aldi in Germany, France, Poland, the Netherlands, and Spain.

More than every second chicken meat sample (51 per cent) from the three largest poultry companies in Europe is contaminated with resistance to one or even several antibiotics at the same time. On average, more than every third chicken (35 per cent) even carries antibiotic-resistant pathogens with resistance to critically important antimicrobials highest priority (CIA HP) into the food chain. These are the alarming results of a study published today on behalf of the environmental and consumer protection organisation Germanwatch and "Ärzte gegen Massentierhaltung". The study tested 165 chicken meat samples from the three companies, purchased in Germany, France, Poland, the Netherlands, and Spain.

The samples from the poultry company PHW showed the highest contamination rate: Antibiotic-resistant pathogens were found in 59 per cent of the chicken meat samples. This means that the resistance rates found were even higher than in recent chicken meat tests carried out by German authorities, where around half of the samples were contaminated. The PHW group includes the brands Wiesenhof and Drobimex (Poland). Every fourth PHW sample carries MRSA into the food chain. Every third chicken meat sample of the PHW group (headquartered in Germany) shows resistance to CIAs HP. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), these should be reserved for humans, as they are needed in emergencies when conventional antibiotics are no longer effective. The EU Commission intends to decide in the coming weeks whether these emergency antibiotics of the highest priority for humans may continue to be used in intensive livestock farming.

Chicken meat from the French LDC group, with 57 per cent of samples contaminated, proves to be hardly less contaminated than PHW meat. The LDC Group includes the brands Le Gaulois and Maitre Coq. The largest EU poultry group, LDC, provides strong evidence of the need for an EU-wide ban on these most important antibiotics for humans in industrial animal husbandry, with a 45 per cent sample contamination rate with reserve antibiotic resistance.

For meat from the poultry company Plukon (Netherlands), one in three chicken samples contains antibiotic resistance, and one in four chicken samples also contains reserve antibiotic resistance. Plukon meat has the highest rate of ESBL-producing pathogens in the present comparison, which can put sick and elderly people and young children at risk. The Plukon Group includes the brands Stolle and Friki.

In Europe, 33,000 people die every year because antibiotics are no longer effective. Veterinarians in the EU use more antibiotics for animals than human medicine does for sick people. The massive use of antibiotics, particularly in industrial animal husbandry, is one of the main reasons for the increase in resistance, along with infection in hospitals and improper use of antibiotics. Pathogens that are resistant to antibiotics can be ingested, for example, during meat preparation, when resistant pathogens get onto kitchen utensils or raw vegetables, for example when cutting meat.

Reinhild Benning, expert for animal husbandry at Germanwatch: "The high resistance rates - especially against CIAs HP - have surprised and shocked us. Antibiotic resistance is an enormous health risk for humans. Especially in times of a corona pandemic, Covid patients often need effective antibiotics because of accompanying bacterial diseases. Contaminated poultry meat from industrial intensive livestock farming can contribute to increasingly frequent failures of the last effective antibiotics. Brussels has already afforded the meat industry too much special treatment. Now it must give priority to saving lives over cheap industrial meat production. Emergency antibiotics in animal factories must be banned".

Prof. Dr Sören Gatermann, head of the investigation at the National Reference Centre for Gram-negative Hospital Pathogens (Bochum): "The high rate of samples with fluoroquinolone resistance and the detection of MRSA was surprising. After all, quinolones are important antibiotics for the treatment of even severe infections in humans".

Dr Imke Lührs, board member of Ärzte gegen Massentierhaltung (Doctors Against Factory Farming): "The EU Commission can and must reserve the antibiotics defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a top priority for humans. Otherwise, it will be jointly responsible if even more seriously ill patients die from infections with resistant germs. We doctors are dependent on CIAs HP in many areas of modern medicine, such as tumour therapy, transplants, premature babies, major operations, and serious accidents. The fact that CIAs HP are used to make the system of industrial animal husbandry possible is unbearable. We need effective animal welfare legislation and a ban on CIA´s HP in the barn".

While the use of antibiotics by veterinarians in some EU countries like Germany is decreasing according to EU authorities, resistance rates are not decreasing uniformly. According to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, the consumption of antibiotics in broiler chickens in Germany only fell by 0.9 per cent between 2014 and 2017. High resistance rates are regarded as an indication that the animals and thus their germ flora are continuously confronted with antibiotics.

Germanwatch and Ärzte gegen Massentierhaltung (Doctors Against Factory Farming) demand that the EU Commission prohibit the dangerous use of CIA´s HP. Germanwatch advises consumers to buy poultry meat only from organic production or meat from farm slaughtering.

About the study: In the National Reference Centre for Gram-negative Hospital Pathogens (Bochum) a total of 165 chicken meat samples were examined. They come from the three largest poultry groups in the EU: PHW, the French LDC group and the Dutch Plukon group. The samples were purchased from Lidl and Aldi branches in Poland, Germany, France and Spain or directly from the relevant slaughterhouses in Germany and the Netherlands.