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New Approaches to Antibiotics in Food, From Berries to Big Data

Find out how three researchers are helping to reevaluate the use of antibiotics in the food system.

Published May 24, 2016

New Approaches to Antibiotics in Food, From Berries to Big Data

It's difficult to imagine a world without antibiotics-since the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928, antimicrobial drugs and substances have saved millions of lives and controlled the spread of countless infections and diseases. But with the alarming increase in strains of drug-resistant bacteria and questions about the link between antibiotic use in animals and human health, new strategies are needed. An important element of this holistic approach is to complement the control of antibiotics prescribed to humans with strategies to judiciously use antibiotics consumed by animals in food production. Natural fruit extracts and gasses have been explored as means for curbing the spread of bacteria and initiatives to more accurately track the prevalence of drug-resistant bacteria are just a few of the ideas for reevaluating the use of antibiotics in the food system.

François Malouin, PhD, and colleagues have evaluated cranberries and their compounds as a novel antibiotic alternative for bacteria like methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA), although exactly how the flavonoids work against bacteria is not clear. One poultry study also observed that adding 40mg of cranberry extracts per kilogram of feed led to 40% fewer early deaths in birds. James L. Marsden, PhD, has also analyzed interventions for controlling the genus of bacteria Listeria monocytogenes that is connected to three multistate outbreaks of listeriosis this year alone. For controlling L. monocytogenes on food-contact surfaces, Ozone may be an effective yet inexpensive means for controlling the spread of potentially dangerous bacteria in food production. Marden's research showed that when applied to stainless steel surfaces for 15 minutes, an advanced oxidation technology  was successful in reducing multiple strains of L. monocytogenes on the previously contaminated surfaces.

Antibiotics are also given in feeds for food-producing animals to promote faster growth while also reducing the amount of feed needed. However, in 2006 the European Union banned the use of antibiotics for promoting growth in animal production and since 2013 the Food and Drug Administration has called for the industry to voluntarily phase out the use of antibiotics for food production purposes. Rebecca Irwin, DVM, MSc, and colleagues from the Canadian Integrated Program for Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance (CIPARS) reported in 2005 that high levels of cephalosporin-resistant Escherichia coli were detected in chicken samples purchased from grocery stores in Quebec and Ontario and in chicken and human Salmonella Heidelberg samples from humans.  Chicken hatcheries in Quebec agreed to a voluntary suspension of ceftiofur, a cephalosporin-type antibiotic. Unfortunately, after the voluntary ban was lifted cephalosporin-resistant E. coli and S. Heidelberg once again re-emerged in chicken and human samples assessed by CIPARS. As of 2013, CISPARS reported that resistance to ciprofloxacin among S. Typhi human infections increased to 18%, up from 10% in the previous year.

As the demand for animal food products continues to increase while drug-resistant bacteria remain a threat, developing evidence-based interventions and antibiotic alternatives has become a significant public health need at the global level. Although antibiotics may be at times necessary in animals for food production, these alternatives could signal a systemic shift for improved food safety and both animal and human health.

Learn more at the event, "Antibiotics in Food: Can Less Do More?" on June 3rd at the New York Academy of Sciences. A panel discussion featuring Drs. Malouin, Marsden, and Irwin will also be available via Livestream. Take part in the conversation and submit your questions for these experts to