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Our antibiotics challenge goes way beyond seafood

But whoever let the truth get in the way of a good story?

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. This was pretty much the mantra of my parents when I was growing up. As such, a cold was treated by lobbing a Vicks inhaler up your nose and having a cup of orange juice. A hemorrhaging head injury got a large tea towel and a little lie down. And a severe full-body rash? "Well, let's just see how that develops before we go bothering anyone."

As for antibiotics, they were a rare and magical treat for when your inner ear had started leaking pus or you'd lost a toe to a rusty saw. And my God, if you got a bottle of that inexorably sweet banana-flavored syrup, then you drank every last treacly drop.

This was not just because of my parents' overwhelming need to never appear to be making a fuss; it was the consensus of the UK's national health service (NHS). The more we use antibiotics as a general human population, the less effective they are. As a child, I thought everyone knew that and that everyone took precautions against it.

My experience as an adult, however, and without wanting to sound like some crazed Brexiteer, is that other countries don't apply the same rules. In several countries I have lived in or visited, getting hold of a course of antibiotics is as simple as telling the local chemist you have a mildly sore ear or a light rash somewhere you can't show them. And Bob's your uncle. Antibiotics R Us.

Friends of mine have even been known to get themselves a little spare set of the miracle pills to take on holiday, just in case little Freddy gets an ouchy and they're too busy drinking sundowners to take him to the doctor's in case of possible infection.

So to read the recent "shock report" on antibiotic-resistant bacteria found on imported shrimp in Canadian supermarkets almost made me choke on my coffee.

Because, firstly, it's of course terrifying that there are antibiotic-resistant bacteria on shrimp; but the premise of the story makes it sound as though there aren't antibiotic-resistant bacteria to be found literally almost everywhere else, and in fact in far higher densities.

As the Global Aquaculture Alliance rightly highlights in response to the story, in terrestrial animal agriculture, a 2018 US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) report found that antibiotic-resistant bacteria exist on 79 percent of ground turkey, 71 percent of pork chops, 62 percent of ground beef and 36 percent of chicken breasts, wings and thighs.

In CBC's shrimp sampling, a far lower 18 percent contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

This is not to say that any level of antibiotic resistant bacteria in an animal we are eating is OK. It is absolutely not. But the story is far bigger than this narrow piece of journalism would have ill-informed readers believe.

GAA also, to my earlier point, highlights the lack of consistency in international healthcare as regards antibiotics resistance.

In the wider statement sent to IntraFish, it references a 2014 Report to the US president which indicated that only 50 percent of US hospitals have implemented antibiotic stewardship programs, and a 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) indicating that at least 30 percent of antibiotic prescriptions in doctors’ offices and emergency departments are unnecessary.

GAA's professional and measured response to the story is to be admired, but for the selective finger of blame for all the world's antibiotic resistance woes to be pointed so aggressively at the farmed shrimp industry is a misleading and damaging angle.

Not because of the damage it will do to the shrimp or seafood sector -- there is no denying there is still a lot of work to be done -- so much as the damage it does to the bigger battle of antibiotic resistance, of which the seafood industry is only one part.

Telling people that all the world's potential future disease epidemics will come from eating farmed shrimp and ignoring the bigger picture, leaves Fanny Jo to bypass her weekly serving of shrimp gumbo in favor of an even more antibiotic-resistant-bacteria-laden pork steak, before heading off to the doctor's to get some pills for that niggling ache in her stomach.

The seafood industry seriously needs to tackle its antibiotic usage, and reams of negative press coverage and consumer backlash is making it -- gradually -- do just that, but it is time for mainstream media and governments around the world to address the larger issues at play when it comes to antibiotic resistance and put some pretty big wheels into motion. Maybe this is seafood's chance to raise the bar and lead the way.

Comments? Email rachelmutter@intrafish.com

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