About one in five chickens consumed in the UK contains traces of potentially dangerous drugs, says a hard-hitting report from the Soil Association. It says this could lead to consumers running extra risks of cancer, heart attacks and may cause foetal defects.
The report, to be studied by the government's Food Standards Agency, calls for use of antibiotics and veterinary medicines used in the rearing of poultry to be banned.
One of the report's authors Richard Young, said, "Despite repeated assertions by regulators that nearly all poultry products are free from detectable residues, figures show clearly that about 20% of chicken meat and 10% of the eggs tested contain residues of drugs deemed too dangerous for use in human medicine."
Young, who coordinates the Soil Association's campaign against the overuse of antibiotics in intensive farming, and his co-author Alison Craig, challenge statements from senior officials in the Veterinary Medicines Directorate [the executive agency of MAFF responsible for residue surveillance], who assert that approximately "99% of poultry meat and 97% of eggs are free of detectable residues".
The report, Too Hard to Swallow, the truth about drugs and poultry, claims that the figures are distorted and achieved by a statistical trick.
The results of positive tests for individual drugs are expressed as a percentage of all tests undertaken for all substance (most of which are never found), say the authors. But closer scrutiny of data revealed a more alarming picture, they say.
The drugs of most concern were those used to control internal parasites in poultry and game birds. In 1999, nicarbazin was found in 18% of chicken livers tested and in about 2% of eggs.
Studies had shown it could cause birth defects and hormonal problems in animals.
Lasalocid, which may damage the heart, was not even licensed for laying hens but had been found in one in every dozen eggs. It had also been detected in 12% of chicken muscle. Dimetridazole, suspected of being able to induce cancer and birth defects, was licensed for use in turkeys and pheasants, but had been found in one in 200 chicken eggs in 1999.
More than 750 million chickens a year are eaten in the UK, accounting for nearly 40% of all meat sold, as well as nearly 10 billion eggs.
STATISTICAL TRICKERY DENIED
The Veterinary Medicines Directorate denied statistical trickery. A spokesman said: "These are active ingredients which do have recommended levels and are safe from a veterinary point of view in the right dosage. We investigate where residues seem to be high."
Roger Cook, from the National Office for Animal Health, representing the drug industry, said the anti-parasite treatments had made modern production possible. "There are vaccines but they are not as widely appropriate as the Soil Association is implying."
The British Egg Industry Council accused the Soil Association of using "outdated" figures from 1999, but said that even then levels of nicarbazin were minute. It said problems had been caused by accidental contamination in feed mills or on farms.
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