"Serious food safety questions" are challenging Britain's £5.6 billion dairy industry: on 6 October 2006, reports were received that European food officials had discovered cheese contaminated with antibiotics, dyes, and detergents.
1. "Serious food safety questions" are challenging Britain's £5.6 billion dairy industry: on 6 October 2006, reports were received that European food officials had discovered cheese contaminated with antibiotics, dyes, and detergents and that they had announced a series of emergency inspections. The European Commission directed a warning that Britain must change its approach to guarantee hygiene standards. The Commission is likely to start litigation against Britain on Thursday 12 October 2006.
2. The British Government has been forced to defend its tests on milk for health and safety, which it insists assure the public that animal-derived milks are fit for consumption and use. A row that began as "a dispute over a sharp practice at a Lancashire cheesemaker's" erupted during Friday 6 October to threaten the reputation of the entire dairy industry and raised the spectre of another food scare after the disastrous foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 and the beef ban over 'mad cow' disease" (The Times, 7 October 2006). The dairy industry is currently in turmoil for other reasons notably arising from bovine tuberculosis and an outbreak in the Low Countries of Blue Tongue disease, which is transmitted by Culicoides midges. This is a new strain of Blue Tongue (strain 8), more of a threat to cattle than sheep, which distinguishes it from the virus spreading northwards from southern Europe. The dairy industry and associated aspects of live/deadstock farming are reeling under threats that seem more sustainable than excuses trotted out for the "white stuff" and its co-products and by-products, among which we can include the pathetic calves destined for the veal trade, even when Virtue Adding Tricks (VAT) are invented for "rosy welfare friendly" meat.
3. The European Commission threatens to take Britain to the European Court of Justice unless it takes "measures to ensure that there is no risk to human health and changed its procedures with regard to what it demands for antibiotic-testing in milk." British producers have replied angrily. Dairy UK has rated the EU declaration "an attack on the competence of the Food Standards Agency." The Commission has pressed ahead with an inspection in November of a random selection of British milk plants and it has issued an export ban on Bowland Dairy Products Ltd in Nelson, Lancashire, where it found "raw milk containing antibiotic residues" or contaminated with "substances such as detergents and dyes use to make curd cheese." The Commission also stated that "Bowland was also using mouldy and contaminated cheese (including 'floor waste') to vacuum-pack for sale", as well as out-of-date milk it had collected from the retail trade.
4. A spokesperson for the EU's health and consumer safety department said: "We do not consider that the UK authorities have taken effective action to ensure that this dairy has come into full compliance with EU health and hygiene rules." The spokesman said that Bowland was buying milk that has tested positive for antibiotics, "leaving it for a few days and testing it again", which meant that the antibiotics had broken down and did not show up in screening tests. The spokesman added: "We say the risk of allergens is still there and the risk to public health is still there".
5. Bowland Dairy Products, which employs 22 workers, has built its reputation over the past 8 years on buying milk that "others will not touch" in the words of the Times (of which one might be notoriety), either because it has a trace of antibiotics or is tainted in some way. It produces about 2000 tonnes of curd cheese each year. This requires a further 6 months or more to turn into a cheddar-type cheese ready for human consumption.
6. At the moment it is not clear whether the raw material "ends up on supermarket shelves in recognized branded products such as pizza toppings", but Dairy UK said that it did not. "Bowland would not say" comments the Times. The FSA said that the dairy's products met "commonly-accepted standards" and suggested that the row reflected "a difference of scientific opinion over how to interpret results for antibiotics in milk that had spiralled out of control." A spokesman observed that "one of the tests is a test for antibiotic residues and, if it is positive, the Commission is saying that the milk is technically over the maximum levels. We say the science does not support that."
7. The FSA said that it had reinspected Bowland after the Commission's visit and put an end to the practice of "recycling". Until the EU inspection on 9 June 2006, the company had exported cheese curd to Austria, Denmark, Ireland, France, and Germany. Since then, the exports have continued to the last two destinations only. The breaches of good practice discovered at the June visit may prompt a special inspection in November of the entire dairy sector. Bowland has denied the EU's allegations, asserting that it had been "the unfortunate victim of an ongoing dispute between the European Commission, UK authorities, and the FSA, on the interpretation of EU food safety regulations." Bowland plans to challenge the decision before the European Court of First Instance in Luxembourg.
Some History on Antibiotics and Animal Pharming
8. Antibiotics and the food chain have exercised VEGA and its predecessors for 50 years or more - and longer than that when the corollaries in the vitamin B12 and animal protein factors were major topics; and certainly before probiotics and prebiotics had come into the picture. Although we await more information over this row between the UK and EU authorities, a rehearsal of the history of the significance of antibiotics in the food chain deserves review. Another serious threat to the British dairy industry looms.
9. Antibiotics produced commercially before WW2 were the results of chemical synthesis guided on the "magic bullet" principle of selective toxicity developed particularly by the German pharmaceutical industry. Selectivity meant that the toxicity was much stronger to the invader (the pathogenic bacteria for example) than to the unfortunate host (which could be a patient of any animal species or plants). Sulfonamides were developed in this way and, largely thanks to German Vorsprung durch Technik, Churchill survived a bout of potentially lethal pneumonia during WW2 by treatment with an M and B drug coming on the British market as a result of the interest of the British pharmaceutical company May and Baker. This development exceeded some of the earlier German magic bullets, which depended on derivatives of arsenic and mercury and gained wide application at health spas and at other retreats and resorts to which the aristocracy retreated when the unmentionable overtook them - an attack of the Great Pox (ie syphilis, usually attributed, eg in ranks above colonels and padres, as infection from the lavatory seat, but more likely from "a night with Venus and a lifetime with mercury"). From all we know now - and especially over suspicions over the effects of heavy metals such as mercury - the consequences in politics and war must have been disasters attributable to the clumsy applications of selective toxicity in the treatment of infectious diseases.
10. However, many people didn't go down with syphilis even after long lives of sitting on lavatory seats, but they fell ill with other demotic infections, often lethal, that illustrated challenges to the growing sciences of microbiology, immunology, and chemotherapy, with quests for treatments exhibiting not only selectivity but even specificity. Bernard Shaw appears to have been acquainted with some of the protagonists in these dramas and appreciated this knowledge by giving voice to doctors' dilemmas and the need to "stimulate the phagocytes", ie to provoke a beneficial immune response. Untoward reactions, auto-immunity, and allergy were subsequent complications to add to trouble doctors and patients. Definitions are further confused by descriptions of antibiotics in various contexts as antiseptics, disinfectants, and biocides; in these uses the object of the attack is assumed to be small, eg a microbe, and further descriptions arise, possibly sharpening definitions, such as antimicrobial, antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and other words to cover small insects and animals such as worms, which are usually parasites, such as ticks and hookworm. Prions, now of importance in the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies such as BSE, scrapie, and vCJD, are other zoonotic causes of disease in humans and farm animals. Prions are highly resistant to antibiotics and to antiseptics and disinfectants and to many other agents and processes that could be rated biocidal or as sterilization. Pasteurization and UHT can be regarded forms of sterilization, total or partial (and therefore selective).
"Such wide application of powerful medication, unaccompanied by strict control over usage and dosage, invites the threat of untoward reactions, development of resistance, loss of utility..."11. Antibiotics have proved their worth in many medical and veterinary applications - and even in treating diseases in fruit trees. So widespread has been their use and the development of "broad spectrum" drugs that syphilis has almost been adventitiously overcome. However, such wide application of powerful medication, unaccompanied by strict control over usage and dosage, invites the threat of untoward reactions, development of resistance, loss of utility, and - until recent years - research and development in the pharmaceutical industry to overcome the problems with innovations and me-too drugs. The need for responsible application of the existing armamentarium is therefore imperative.
12. Fermentative processes are essentials in the workings of the food industry involving benign or tamed microorganisms, as in the brewing, baking, and dairying enterprises and in farming (eg in composting and in making silage and hay). Adventitious microbiological processes are also involved in processes of decay and disease involving fermentative processes particularly associated with the actions of fungi, yeasts, and moulds: athlete's foot is an example, for which prevention is achieved by attention to hygiene and affliction by application or ingestion of antifungal compounds.
13. Organisms such as fungi naturally produce antibiotics functioning antibacterially in their own interest to clear their environment of competitors for sustenance. Bacteria may become infected with viruses called phages. Such biosynthetic faculties extend beyond the repertoire of antibiotics (vitamin B12 and algal sources of carotenes, which can be turned into sources of vitamin A, for example), but the possibilities of cultivating microorganisms and "milking" their media for selective antibiotics (ie those lacking significant antifungal activity) seized the pharmaceutical industry after the full significance of Fleming's seminal experiments had sunk in and difficulties over the extraction and purification of the chemically-fragile penicillins had been mastered.
14. The penicillins are a family of compounds, somewhat peptide-like and chemically-modifiable, that have become subsumed into the larger group called beta-lactam antibiotics (or antibacterials), which includes cephalosporins. The structures and syntheses of these compounds has given chemists great fun and biochemists have gained much enjoyment from contemplation of the specificity implied in their modes of action: the amino acids in the essential cell walls of bacteria are in the arbitrarily assigned D-configuration whereas the essential amino acids derived for the growth and maintenance of animals may appear identical on paper to lookalikes in the bacterial equipment but in 3 dimensions they are configurationally of different handedness and are thus assigned L-laterality (D- stands for dextro- and L- for levo-). Thus the beta-lactam antibiotics could be assigned as antibiotics specific to organisms dependent on D-stereochemistry but apparently harmless to people and other animals whose essential growth and reproductive processes would not be compromised.
15. Original commercial production of penicillins required media for the fermentation and formation, mushroom-like, of mycelia ("felts") that had to be disposed of. At this time, food was in short supply and production of food-yeasts, such as torula, was in minds as a veggie answer to protein shortages. Quorn is a mycoprotein that realizes these thoughts; it was not such a great step therefore to think of feeding this waste to boost outputs in the live/deadstock industry and also to lessen embarrassments over disposal and environmental problems. This incorporation into feeds achieved more than expected in nutritional terms for increases in productivity: remains of the antibiotics intended for other purposes were identified as production-boosters. Thus began the commercial practice of augmenting feedstuffs with incorporated antibiotics and "top dressings". Industry has always utilized by-products of major processes: brewers' grains, pot-ale, and draff have improved farm animals' rations, and yeast extracts and meat-and-bone meal from the slaughterhouse illustrate further examples of such thrifty (and possibly hazardous) ways.
16. The production-boosting properties of the additions have not been fully explained. Their effects on gut flora have been implied and digestive enhancers suggested as a euphemism. Opprobrium has beset the practice and another word - metaphylaxis - has been applied to describe it nicely. Whatever the name, the embarrassments have combined in concerns for the veterinary and medical authorities over the spread of bacteria and diseases exhibiting manifold resistance to drugs used in the treatment of severe infections. Doctors have suppressed their overt impatience with misuse by farmers and vets of drugs losing their potency for therapeutic purposes. Vets' rejoinders cite evidence that indicates excessive prescriptions in hospitals and by GPs, as well as lapses in good hygiene. MRSA and now Clostridium difficile give support to this theory, but they fail to allow for the traffic in hospitals of staff, visitors, and sick patients, some undergoing surgery, who cannot practicably be rendered sterile!
17. The Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS), doggedly pursuing clues from outbreaks of food poisoning and contacts and environmental contaminations, adduced sufficient evidence to convince the Swann Committee called by the Government and pronouncing in 1969, of the need to restrict veterinary usage of antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes to those hardly resorted to in medical practice. This was a stricter stipulation than was applied in North America and some other countries, where it was applauded, but dismissed as impracticable and beyond the farming and veterinary authorities to control. Some years later, Scandinavian countries began restrictions severer than the UK's; therapeutic usage and advertising direct to farmers has been continued in the UK but leaving farmers, with vets' acquiescence, to engage in exaggerated and routine prophylaxis (prevention). Protection of the food chain requires a confusing array of withholding times prior to slaughter and to release of milk for human consumption. Veterinary authorities and the pharmaceutical industry (represented by their involvement with the National Office for Animal Health, NOAH) resisted adoption of the Danish proposals, arguing that withdrawal of routine low non-therapeutic doses, and the possible prophylactic effects therewith, would result in increased final resort to permitted therapeutic drugs.
18. Efforts were made to control sales and usage of the drugs for all non-human animals - farm livestock, companion animals, and farmed fish; horses for slaughter for human food have been separated from the category destined to be removed from the food chain, although veterinarians prescribing drugs needed foresight and assurances from the owner on the regime facing an equine of lowly status in the populations of working, breeding, riding, racing, and hunting horses and donkeys. Zoos and circuses also keep animals that may need treatment, and other commercial species not intended as sources of meat, milk, and eggs (such as working and racing dogs) have to be considered in the total antibiotic environment teeming with bacteria, benign and pathogenic, exchanging genetic fragments conferring beneficial resistances to remedies for ills of many animal species and many needing cures for the feckless husbandry of intensive farming.
19. The dairy industry calls for attention because of the heavy toll of stress and disease in the livestock. Mastitis, lameness, and reproductive and respiratory disorders abound in the dairy industry. Frail newborn calves are snatched from dams even before a bond can be formed and adequate supplies of colostrum be assured and before they can accept substitutes or milk from foster mothers removed from the food chain while they serve their withdrawal time to wash out residues of antibiotics they might have been treated with. For animals slaughtered at a young age, the withdrawal periods, if legally observed, may last most of their short lives, so early administration is essential. The lot of the dairy calves ("bobbies"), mainly males and females not required as replacements for culled milkers, contrasts with the early life of the calf in the "natural" Chillingham herd and in suckler beef enterprises: such calves are still with their mothers at an age when the dairy calf is on its way through dealerships and transhipments to its destiny as a source of veal or baby-beef.
20. BSE erupted and was maintained in the dairy herd. It offers another example of the evils of this relentless system. The calves fall victim to bacterial and viral diseases, notably pneumonia, and may be dosed heavily and ineptly with antibiotics ineffectual against viruses. Many outbreaks of diseases resistant to antibiotics originate in the dairy herd. The Soil Association is one of the organic and "green" groups averse to the use of anti-infective drugs and favoring homeopathic treatments and vaccination as alternatives. However, vaccines may be kept sterile with antibiotics or antiseptics (among which thiomersal, a mercurial compound may be included), as well as dubious adjuvants; and homeopathy may not work and leave the animal suffering before resort can be allowed to use of standard antibiotic treatments. Serious animal welfare problems can arise from delayed or indecisive recourse to antibiotics.
21. Cheese-making, which depends on the action of benign bacteria, will fail unless the milk is free from residues of powerful therapeutic antibiotics. Farmers earn a premium on milk intended for cheese-making, which may be converted raw or partially skimmed. The danger of listeria usually commands recourse to prior pasteurization, and the heating may deactivate residues of the more sensitive antibiotics and denature some of the protein content. Some of the enzymes, such as penicillinases, may be applied to break up the antibiotic molecules and thus cause eradication of antimicrobial activity. Tests on raw milk are of variable sensitivity to commonly-used antibiotics; they are therefore of low specificity and subject to controversial interpretations.
22. Cheese-making processes require the preservation of a specific bacterial flora uncontaminated by unwanted invasive organisms. Such biological purity is achieved by inoculating the milk with special antibiotics, such as nisin. These are bacteriocins produced by some bacteria as a defence against competitive strains.
23. Lactobacilli favored to convert milks into yogurt-style products may, for special purposes, be added at the end of processing (eg for their properties as probiotics). Claims made for "live" yogurts may be justified, but many reports but many reports indicate that the additives have not been as lively and beneficial as the labels suggest. It is possible in this way to introduce lactobacilli into dairy-free products, the added organisms and enzymes being harvested from non-dairy cultures, notwithstanding the lacto- name. We tried traditional starter cultures on soya milks in a project to make dairy-free yogurts and cheeses. A research project launched to this end failed. More bacteriology would be needed - and possibly will be. Bacteria have their individual nutritional preferences, environments and susceptibilities: some depend on vitamin B12, for instance, others can biosynthesise it. These properties can be turned to account in assays.
24. The pharmaceutical industry has lost urgency in keeping ahead of the bacterial capabilities in developing resistance to its innovations: superdrugs are winning over wonderdrugs, and choice of drugs is becoming alarmingly limited. Preference for administration by mouth rather than by injection entails tricky pharmacokinetics to ensure stability of the medication in the foregut and complete absorption through the cell wall of the upper small intestine to ensure that microbiological activity does not escape into the seething complex of benign bacterial activity in the colon. This population normally crowds out alien invaders with serious pathogenic potential. In further developments, pro-drugs have been devised to survive the conditions in the foregut but to succumb, releasing the active agent, as it enters the small intestine and the environment there. Again, there has to be caution that these devices work efficiently and do not deliver untoward biological activity into the colon. Some antibiotics act as bacteriostats halting reproduction of the targetted organisms or they may be bacteriocidal, causing disruption of the organisms and spillage of their contents; either way, the system may receive doses of alien materials with adverse effects extending to causes of toxic shock.
25. And finally, the realities arise of allergies, especially to antibiotics of the penicillin type, and of adverse side-effects and syndromes, notably to certain sulphur drugs. The precise sources of these dangers are not known: they may be impurities carried through from fermentations. Compounds of the beta-lactam type are susceptible to breakdown by lactamase enzymes developed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria or by extreme physiological conditions. The resulting fragments will not register in the standard tests for biological activity, which indicate only antibacterial properties.
26. We understand that the next Open Meeting of the Food Standards Agency, to be held on Thursday, 12 October 2006 will be webcast. It should be a lively event and clarify some of the issues annoying the UK and EU authorities. The British dairy industry is facing another "crisis over EU safety checks", reports the Daily Telegraph (7 October 2006).