Fast-food chains curbing antibiotic abuse in West, but not in India

14 Nov 2017


Food at your favourite multinational fast food joint like a McDonald's, Taco Bell or Domino's is probably a lot less safe in India than in the United States or Europe.

A new study released by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) reveals that fast food multinational companies which have made specific and time-bound commitments to eliminate the misuse of antibiotics in chicken supply chains in several developed countries have taken no such steps in India.

The study, released for the 'World Antibiotic Awareness Week', examines the use of antibiotic fed chicken, meat and fish by these fast food giants.

Chicken is a key component of India's fast-growing fast food industry, and the use of antibiotics is hugely contributing to Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR).

The CSE said its assessments revealed that the MNCs maintained 'double standards' in the absence of any government regulation in these matters.

Several studies have shown that India is becoming the world's capital of drug-resistant tuberculosis and other AMR diseases, yet a government almost trigger-happy with regulation in other areas has done nothing to stop the rampant misuse of antibiotics in cattle and poultry.

''India bears a serious burden of bacterial infections. Unsanitary conditions, limited infection prevention and control, poor regulations and implementation, and inadequate health systems add to the problem. Due to high resistance, antibiotics such as fluoroquinolones, macrolides and cephalosporins used to treat common infections of the urinary tract, respiratory tract and gastrointestinal tract and those used as a last resort in hospitals are increasingly becoming ineffective,'' reads the report.

In a report titled Double Standards: Antibiotic Misuse by Fast Food Companies, CSE has examined the policies and practices concerning antibiotic misuse at the Indian outlets of 12 global fast food companies that own 14 key brands in India. Of these, only five companies which operated six brands responded to the queries posed by CSE.

''Only three out of the nine companies managing four multinational brands responded. These include those managing Subway, Burger King, Domino's Pizza and Dunkin' Donuts (the last two brands are managed by Jubilant FoodWorks Ltd in India). Two out of three companies managing Indian brands responded. These include Café Coffee Day and Barista. Seven companies managing eight brands did not respond,'' said the report.

Six companies that operate seven multinational brands - McDonald's, Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell, Chili's Grill & Bar, Starbucks and Wendy's - did not respond. Nirula's was only the Indian brand to not respond.

McDonald's, which has promised to eliminate the highest priority critically important microbials (CIAs) in the United States and Europe, have no such goals for India and is yet to respond to CSE's report.

According to the research body, Subway, which eliminated the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion in the US by 2016, has given the best response so far.

They have told CSE that the chicken and lamb meat they use are tested for antibiotics residue. The American fast food giant has further said that their policy was to use drugs to treat, control and prevent disease, not for growth.

The environment research body claims that this is a loophole as antibiotics are used for other purposes too. CSE has demanded to know all the norms that prevent all non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, until there actually is a disease to be treated.

Domino's and Burger King have also responded, but without time-bound commitments and test and audit results.

Barista has, meanwhile, assured CSE that they are abiding by the norms set out by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). However, the FSSAI has no regulations on antibiotic use in poultry.

According to CSE, the food authority's plans to set these norms are stuck in the pipeline for many years now.

The CSE's Amit Khurana, who heads the food safety and toxics team and worked on the report, said the immediate fallout is that consumers will become immune to antibiotics.

''This antibiotic resistance in humans mean curable infections will become more difficult to treat. This concerns public health and food safety that has severe health implications. As MNCs are making these commitments in other parts of the world, there seems to be no reason why they should not do it in India. The only reason perhaps is that government does not have adequate regulation and we are not asking enough questions,'' said Khurana.

Antibiotics in low doses help fatten animals with less feed. Fast food brands across the world have committed to phase out poultry, meat and fish that are fed antibiotics for disease prevention.

For the western nations implementation of these policies are ''aggressive, specific and time-bound'', yet, it is absent in India, says CSE.

At a global scale, says Chandra Bhushan, CSE's deputy director general, an estimated 80 per cent of antibiotics are used with minimal regulation on animals and 20 per cent for humans.

This, especially in India, has led to a rise of drug resistant diseases like tuberculosis and UTI. Crucial antibiotics listed by the World Health Organisation are also losing efficacy.

As major buyers of poultry, a change in the MNCs' practices and better safety norms could change the market and force intensive poultry farms and suppliers to raise birds without antibiotics.

The closest that these global companies have come to slowdown antibiotic resistance in the region is their implementation of policies in China by 2020. However, Bhushan says India, which is already facing a threat of rising antibiotic resistance (ABR) and antimicrobial resistance (AMR), is not a priority for these companies.

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