True cost of poor farm animal welfare: antimicrobial resistance genes in tons of feed
The intensive livestock sector’s overreliance on feed supplements to ensure the survival of animals kept in conditions unnatural to their species proves to be unsustainable. This scandal reinforces the urgent need to reform European animal agriculture towards more humane, safer systems that benefit both the animals and the general public.
A GMO causing antimicrobial resistance in animal feed
On November 21, French newspaper Le Monde reported the contamination of close to 1 million tons of animal feed with a genetically modified (GM) bacterium carrying genes responsible for resistance to several classes of antimicrobials. The bacterium in question is Bacillus Subtilis (KCCM‐10445), which is used to synthesize riboflavin (vitamin B2), a feed additive commonly used in intensive livestock farming.
The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in animal feed is allowed in the EU. However, in compliance with the strict ban on GMOs in food for human consumption, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) only grants market authorization to GM-processed feed additives provided the manufacturer shows that the GMO used in the process remains undetected in the final product. In other words, in the case of riboflavin, the use of GM-processed additive is not problematic, as long as the final product does not carry active traces of the GMO used for synthesizing the vitamin, especially in the case of a GMO that endangers public health.
Although the production process of riboflavin should have ensured absence of contamination of the feed additive with the genetically modified organism, official controls carried out by the EU have found evidence of contamination, thereby posing the risk of spreading antimicrobial resistance on farms and along the food chain.
In 2016, EFSA had concluded the absence of risk in using riboflavin produced by specific strains of Bacillus Subtilis as an animal feed additive. However, in a second opinion published in March 2018 and triggered by the troubling findings of a German laboratory, EFSA concluded that the use of riboflavin synthesized by Bacillus Subtilis KCCM-10445 threatened human and animal health.
Such findings caused the EU to withdraw the marketing authorization for riboflavin produced by that specific bacillus in September, followed by a product recall on all supplies of feed enriched in riboflavin across the 28 Member States. Because some of excerpts in the 2018 report by EFSA were blacked out, it is impossible to determine to which categories of antimicrobials the strain of Bacillus is resistant, pointing to a lack of transparency on such an important threat to public health. According to a scientific paper published on the journal Food Chemistry, the presence of viable (i.e., living) cells and/or their DNA carrying antimicrobial resistance had been detected as early as 2014 in a consignment of feed additive containing GM-processed riboflavin coming from China.
B2-enriched feed: a common practice in industrial farm animal production
Supplementing animal feed with riboflavin (vitamin B2) is common practice in industrial farm animal production and is authorized for all animal species benefits on growth and overall good health. Although the use of vitamin B2 is widespread throughout animal agriculture, intensive livestock production relies on it to a larger extent compared to extensive farming given the adverse impacts industrial systems have on animals’ health and welfare.
The pork and poultry sectors particularly rely on B2-enriched feed to ensure the healthy development of animals, especially for those kept in conditions unnatural to their species, which typically includes extreme confinement, no outdoor access, restricted to no access to natural light. Vitamin B2 deficiency in broiler chickens can cause poor growth, diarrhea, and weakness, with increased mortality. In laying hens, this deficiency causes decreased egg production, embryonic mortality, and an increase in size and fat content of the liver. In pigs, lack of vitamin B2 can cause reduced reproductive performances and abortions around birth in sows, as well as reduced growth and several other health problems in piglets.
Aquaculture also relies on feed supplemented with B2 at both juvenile and adult stages. In Europe, salmon, trout, sea bass, sea bream, and carp are commonly supplemented with B2. Imported species that are fed B2-enriched diets typically include tilapia and shrimp.
It is time to transition to more humane farming practices as a way to reduce dependency on additives
The use of feed supplement that directly threatens animal and human health is yet another evidence of the difficulty the EU authorities have in regulating the activities of the multiple stakeholders providing for the complex, adverse environment in which factory farming operates.
Ensuring the safety of GM organisms or their derivatives in feed additives presents challenges, as the risk assessment of the use of feed additives is based partially on the information provided by manufacturer, which is demonstrably not always reliable. In the case of riboflavin, it is only when an independent laboratory in Germany discovered that the Bacillus strain was still active in the feed supplement that the EFSA undertook to conduct a second risk assessment, long after meat from animals supplemented with the contaminated additive entered the European food chain (since 2014).
Almost a year and a half after the European Commission presented its action plan to combat antimicrobial resistance, the riboflavin scandal is just another reminder of the intrinsic risk industrial farm animal production in Europe poses to public health. Now more than ever, we need policies to protect consumers by supporting more humane farming systems, where animals live in a healthy environment.
Only transitioning away from industrial farm animal productions would allow farmers to free themselves from the use of unreliable feed supplements and facilitate checks by official authorities, while also providing farmed animals with a life worth living. As European consumers are already shifting to increasingly more flexitarian diets, it is now time the EU authorities engage in reducing meat production, and keep factory farming accountable to citizens.
Alice Di Concetto, Programme Officer – Farm Animals
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