Time and again, Poultry Industry in India has come under media scrutiny several times in the past few years. In everTime and again, Poultry Industry in India has come under media scrutiny several times in the past few years. In every occasion, it has emerged unscathed as it was soon discovered that the charges leveled against it were unsubstantiated and baseless.

Take for example the recent rumor of Chinese Plastic eggs. It was proved beyond doubt that it was a hoax which was deliberately spread by vested interests without an iota of truth in it. India is an egg exporting country and has never imported eggs from any country in the past, plastic or otherwise.

A few years back, charges were leveled by a leading Tamil magazine that there is hormone usage in Broiler industry. That too was soon proved to be an utter lie

It is now common knowledge that nowhere in the world is hormones being used in Poultry Industry. When the previous incidents were triggered by fringe elements and people with dubious distinctions, what comes as a surprise is that the latest piece of onslaught comes from one of the most respected media houses in the country.

Before I delve into the specifics of The Hindu article, It is perhaps better that I set some context to the latest controversy. The development of medical tourism industry in India has drawn the ire of the medical bodies in developed nations. While this is hardly surprising, the way in which they set about countering this affront to their businesses is what is troubling the western medical lobby has been trying to project Indian healthcare system in a bad light in order to dissuade their patients from going to India for medical treatment.

So for several years, they have been sponsoring research to prove the existence of superbugs in India. (For starters, the controversial report by Karthikeyan Kumaraswamy about the “New Delhi Superbug” in 2010 was sponsored by UK Drug Company Wyeth.

On the other hand, Western poultry Industry has been trying to export meat to India with limited success so far mainly because it not been able to produce meat more efficiently than India. They look at every opportunity to show Indian Poultry Industry in a bad light to facilitate backdoor entry of so-called safer imported chicken from the US.

While we have no doubt that Indian Poultry farmers are extremely capable and can take on such competition without out any need for protectionism, I feel obliged to share this: In US, Poultry is grown on genetically modified Grains (GMO grains). In India, as on date, import of GMO grain is banned. Therefore all of Poultry in India are grown fed by Non-GMO grains. I leave it for the reader to decide which is safer for them.

In my house, The Hindu is the only newspaper we get and I have always had the best regards for The Hindu and their journalistic standards. The latest article by The Hindu about poultry and superbugs has made me think if my confidence is misplaced.

When I received the newspaper, I saw a reference to the article on the front page. As a player in the poultry industry, I was intrigued with what the article had to say and read the full article in one go. Having read the article once, I found it raised more questions than answers and it was also a curious mix of half truths and heresy. I read it again to see if I had missed out on some crucial data. There was nothing in that article that really served to connect the dots or leaps of faith from premise to conclusion. Let me explain what I mean.

The article claims that Poultry farms serve as breeding grounds for drug-resistant bugs. The reasoning stated in the article is that there is widespread antibiotic usage in the poultry industry. This, the article claims, makes bacteria resistant to antibiotics. How I wondered. The article never satisfactorily establishes the causal relationship.

In fact, my biggest problem with the article is the way it handles data. The article never reveals how many farms (If any) were surveyed for antibiotic usage. The article also does not reveal if there have been any tests done to see if there were any antibiotic residues in the meat. It also does not reveal if those residues, if at all were found, were above or below international norms for the same. I find it surprising that authors have no qualms about asking readers to take a huge leap of faith and agree with their so-called findings.

Let me make one thing clear: There is antibiotic usage in the poultry. Any organism, whether plant or animal, if grown in large numbers (as a monoculture), invites pathogens in the form of Bacteria, Virus and fungi. While Viruses can be kept in check by vaccinations, Bacterial pathogens have to be treated using some antibiotics. (On a side note, some bacterial pathogens can be vaccinated against. However, for many bacterial and viral pathogens, vaccine import is banned in India.

The Animal husbandry department is governed by an outdated document called the British pharmacopeia from the British era. This doesn’t recognize the prevalence of many of the diseases in India. ) At the moment, there are no viable alternatives to antibiotics. If farmers are restricted from antibiotic usage, this will not only cause flock losses, it may also cause harmful pathogens to be carried in meat and thereby affect consumers.

The article focuses on the usage of one antibiotic (Colistin) in the poultry industry. The article does not disclose how many farms it surveyed were using this antibiotic. Internationally, many countries adopt the concept of the withdrawal period. In lay terms, the withdrawal period is the number of days that the farmer has to wait after completion of administering the antibiotic to the liquidation of the flock. This ensures that the antibiotic residues are cleared from the body of the birds naturally before the birds are shipped to the market. This ensures that antibiotic residues don’t enter food chain. Now, the ways that these withdrawal periods are enforced are through testing of antibiotic residue levels in chicken meat.

The starting point of this controversy was sometime in 2015, when an organization called Center for Science and Environment released a study in which it claimed to have found Antibiotic residues in poultry samples in Haryana. While the report immediately caught media attention, some basic questions on the methodology and also the findings went unanswered. For one, the samples obtained were grossly inadequate and were not representative of the entire country. Secondly, even the results of the survey indicated that the residue levels were far below the accepted international levels. This meant that the issue was a non-existent one.

To quote some figures from that report

Back to the article in The Hindu about spreading superbugs, towards the end it shares quotes from human doctors who report that they deal with patients with infections which are resistant to antibiotics. This is indeed a disturbing piece of news. However, I do not understand how this information is of any relevance in this article as the article never shares data on the dietary preferences of patients and also does not reveal if a statistically significant portion of these multi-drug resistant patients could be linked to meat consumption.

At the moment, there are no laws in place to restrict or regulate antibiotic usage in animal husbandry. This certainly has to change and regulations have to be put in place to ensure the appropriate usage both in hospitals and in animal husbandry practices.

In conclusion, I find the current controversy altogether an unnecessary one and there is absolutely no need to panic. I only request that media houses should be more careful and responsible before making such sweeping statements.

About the author

Balaji P B holds an MBA from F.W. Olin School of Business, Massachusetts and is currently running poultry and allied businesses near Coimbatore.