The facts refute blanket judgements

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are increasingly cropping up everywhere in the world. The media and public opinion often blame animal production for the increase in these bacteria. A sweeping statement that doesn't reflect the truth of the situation, says Prof. Roger Stephan of the University of Zurich.

Bacteria are minute one-celled creatures that are found everywhere and can be transmitted between people, animals and the environment. They can be harmless or even useful, but some of them cause disease. Antibiotics are used in veterinary and human medicine to treat these diseases. They prevent the bacteria from increasing or kill them – but they have to be used judiciously. 

If antibiotics are used indiscriminately or wrongly, they can lose their effectiveness. Inappropriate treatment with antibiotics can cause bacteria to build up resistance. Through genetic mutation, these bacteria develop new properties that protect them against antibiotics. Some bacteria are resistant to several or all the available antibiotics, i.e. they are multi-resistant. Usually, these bacteria aren't more aggressive or cause infection more frequently than non-resistant bacteria. But multi-resistant bacteria are more dangerous because most antibiotics can't effectively treat the infection.

Low treatment rate in poultry production

Discussions about the increase in multi-resistant bacteria often mention the use of antibiotics in animal production. The fact that multi-resistant bacteria have often been identified in poultry regularly generates a great deal of media coverage.

Without knowing the exact facts, the media and the public make hasty judgements and claim that the situation is caused by the excessive use of antibiotics in animal production, and that poultry fattening is the main culprit in causing resistance in people. According to Prof. Roger Stephan of the Institute for Food Safety and Hygiene at the University of Zurich, these sweeping statements don't do justice to the true situation.

In an international comparison, the antibiotics treatment rate is very low for Swiss poultry production. Less than 1 in 10 flocks is treated with antibiotics once, while 90 to 95 percent never have to be given antibiotics. The use of antibiotics as growth promoters has also been forbidden in Switzerland and the EU for many years. There is thus no truth to the accusation that antibiotics are misused across the board.

It should also be remembered that the active substances used in Swiss poultry farming don't as a rule cause the resistances found in humans. Studies have shown that humans are affected by different types of multi-resistant bacteria than poultry.

The right kitchen hygiene can be decisive

The origin and means of transmission of resistant germs haven't yet been finally determined. But if certain rules of conduct are followed, the risk of transmission is very small. This primarily concerns the correct way to handle meat. Thawed meat should never be frozen again. Raw meat should be kept separately from cooked meat and food that is eaten raw. Kitchen utensils must be cleaned thoroughly with soap and hot water after coming into contact with raw meat – and the same applies to our hands. It's a good idea to use a separate cutting board and knife for preparing poultry. It's also important to heat meat properly as the heating process kills bacteria (+70°C). All poultry must therefore be cooked at a sufficiently high temperature before being eaten.