“PORK on your fork that doesn’t give you a pain in the guts”.
That’s the aim of applying high-tech robotics in the pork and chicken industry to detect antimicrobial resistance on farms, including early warning signs for the serious global threat of superbugs, says Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce.
Mr Joyce spoke to media yesterday in Canberra alongside representatives of Australian Pork Limited (APL) where he detailed the intent of a $1.3 million allocation to the pork industry’s research and marketing body, from the Rural R&D for Profit program.
“We’re going to put $1.3m on the table to use robotics in the analysis of antimicrobial resistance in pork,” Mr Joyce said.
“Now antimicrobial resistance is incredibly important in making sure that we’ve got a clean green product we can sell to Australians and to the world.
“’We’ve got to make sure it’s the best product and if people eat it, they’re not going to get a pain in the guts and Australia can do that better than any other country.
“This (antimicrobial resistance project) also adds to that process - the testing of urine, the testing of faeces and testing to make sure you don’t have a superbug in there and a superbug obviously can cause real problems.
“We’re seeing a lot of drug fastness (resistance) now in some of the treatments in hospitals and we don’t want to see things like tuberculosis getting a hold back in Australia; that’d be a real problem.”
Given escalating threats to human health and livestock production associated with antimicrobial resistance and superbugs, Mr Joyce warned against being “excessive” in using antibiotics and contributing to the spread of drug-resistant bacteria.
“If you’re excessive you’ll breed a bug that can’t be treated and nobody wants that,” he said.
Mr Joyce said the $1.3m to APL for the robotics research under round three of the Rural R&D for Profit program was “a great announcement” which formed part of the $700m his government contributed to farm R&D.
He said specialised robots would be used in the research to isolate, count and characterise large numbers of bacteria from animal faeces.
They will be used to identify and grow thousands of individual bacteria to determine the presence and distribution of antimicrobial resistance at both the herd and national level.
“The project will help monitor on-farm control measures to reduce the presence of antimicrobial resistant organisms across pork and chicken meat industries, with the potential for the project to be used as a model in other animal sectors and for ongoing surveillance,” he said.
APL CEO Andrew Spencer said the government’s support for the research project was welcomed which was significant for both humans and animals and would also demonstrate livestock industries as “responsible citizens”.
“The outcome of this project will enable industry to provide hard evidence to back claims and to show leadership credentials, which in an anti-microbial resistant aversive world will be an important point of differentiation,” he said.
The export value of the Australian chicken meat industry was $47m in 2015-2016 and $128m for the pig meat industry.
APL Production Stewardship Manager Dr Pat Mitchell said the government’s funding would help set-up antimicrobial resistance detection, which producers and the industry at large could use as a benchmarking tool.
“It’s fantastic because we’ve been given money to go forward to try and give our producers a tool where they can prove they’re doing the right thing,” she said.
“A couple of years ago the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources gave us money to do antimicrobial surveillance in pigs at slaughter and they’ve helped other industries do the same thing.
“The report’s due out shortly, but what it has shown is that we don’t have resistance to antimicrobials of human importance in our pig population so all of those people who have been heaving spears at the pork industry for what we do, we’ll be able to show them that we don’t do that.”
Dr Mitchell said APL and other livestock industries like chicken meat and eggs and Meat and Livestock Australia had established an antimicrobial stewardship framework where producers can operate the program on farm and across industry and “we’re really excited about that”.
“When you explain to people what you actually do in chicken or pig production they’re blown away because they’ve got this skewed version that sometimes gets into the media, which may have a little bit of truth to it but a lot more imagination, and now we’ll have actual proof,” she said.
The World Health Organization has described antimicrobial resistance as a looming crisis where common and treatable infections are becoming life threatening due to the loss of effective antibiotics.
Superbug “big concern”
Former NSW Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan raised public warnings in Australia about the rise of ‘superbugs’ through the over-use of antibiotics in China’s intensive poultry industry and potential for the resistance threat to spread globally.
The MCR-1 “superbug” was first detected in China in 2015 and causes bacteria to become resistant to colistin; a last line of defence antibiotic.
Asked about the local threat of the superbug in China, Mr Joyce said “This is a big concern not just in the livestock industry but across all facets”.
“We’re having drug fastness and resistance in antimicrobial drugs and if you get that, you’ve got a major, major problem because that means the lifestyle we have would be changed,” he said.
“We’ve got to be ever vigilant and we’ve got to do our part to have this (pork products) as clean and green - but also to be efficient in how we use the very necessary drugs so we can keep using them without the sort of problems that especially in pork, can really cause you strife.”
Dr Mitchell said Alexander Fleming first warned about antimicrobial resistance when he discovered penicillin in 1928.
“As soon as you start using an antibiotic, generally you tend to get resistance but it can also be caused by contact with heavy metals, disinfectants by detergents so we really need to have a broad based view,” she said.
“We do use antibiotics in the pig industry because we have a duty of care to our animals but even with the best intentions in the world an animal may get sick so you need a tool to treat it and it’s pretty much the same in hospitals.
“You do everything else and then when you need to, you use antibiotics and that’s the place where we are in pigs.
“We do get antimicrobial resistance to some antibiotics that we use in the pig industry but they are used specifically for animals and not for humans.
“But we want to ensure we have antibiotics for time immemorial.
“They’re not making very many news ones now because they cost too much so we’ve got to be able to keep the ones we have and make sure they’re efficacious.
“And that’s what we’re trying to do through our stewardship program which is being led by our producers and our veterinarians and supported by industry stakeholders.”
Asked about the superbug threat and any local concerns, Dr Mitchell said colistin wasn’t used in food producing animals in Australia.
“That was one of the antimicrobial resistances we tested for in pigs and we don’t have that so that’s good,” she said.
Mr Spencer said the superbug threat was more of an issue for human health and the biggest threat was it getting into a hospital.
“That’s why this issue of antimicrobial resistance isn’t any different in animals as it is in humans,” he said.
“It’s all one issue and we all have our different roles to play in managing it and this is our part.”
Dr Mitchell said humans often were the ones passing on resistant bugs to animals and therefore biosecurity measures were critical to prevention.