Kenya could be staring at a silent pandemic after a new study revealed that a significant proportion of chicken, pork and other meat products stocked in outlets across the country is contaminated.
This, the experts said, could be harmful to humans, given that the superbugs found in the food could have both immediate and future effects on consumers.
The study done in six counties – Nairobi, Kisumu, Nakuru, Laikipia, Uasin Gishu and Nyeri – revealed that 60 per cent of the meat in supermarkets has bacteria.
This is attributed to livestock suppliers using too many antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease, ultimately presenting a public health threat to consumers.
The bacteria, usually transmitted through contaminated food, cause severe diarrhoea and a broad spectrum of abdominal complications that health experts warn are becoming difficult to treat due to increasing resistance to antibiotics.
Superbugs are strains of bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi that are resistant to most of the antibiotics and other medications commonly used to treat the infections that they cause. Sometimes, bacteria multiply so rapidly they crowd out host tissues and disrupt normal function, killing cells and tissues.
The study by the United Kingdom-based World Animal Protection sampled a total of 187 pork samples and 206 chicken samples collected from six supermarkets in the country, both local regional and international brands.
Of the pork samples, 184 (98.4 per cent) showed bacteria growth, while 199 (96.6 per cent) samples of the poultry samples showed bacteria growth. A total of 611 bacterial contaminants were isolated from the 383 samples obtained.
The samples were purchased as wrapped and sealed by the supplier of the outlet, or as repackaged by the outlet, and were all within the expiry date.
The product branding was concealed to blind the laboratory personnel. All the samples were transported in coolers to the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) in Nairobi within five hours and processing commenced immediately after delivery.
The samples were analysed for bacterial growth and sensitivity to World Health Organization (WHO) recognised antibiotics at the Center for Microbiology Research at Kemri.
The study was done between April and July 2020.
Positive isolates were screened for antibiotic susceptibility to the clinically relevant antibiotics according to the WHO guidance. Antimicrobial resistance prevalence was also determined.
From the findings, a majority of the samples (107) were obtained from international brands, regional (97) and the remaining samples from local supermarkets.
Most of the samples (210) were picked from the supermarket fridge/freezer, 176 samples from the fresh meat section and the remaining from the supermarket shelves. Nairobi County accounted for 75 per cent of all sampled pork and 63 per cent of all sampled chicken.
The poultry products, at 51 per cent, were more likely to have bacteria contamination than pork products with 50 per cent contamination. The bulk of the contaminated meat is under the retailers’ own brands compared to cuts from suppliers.
Escherichia coli (E. coli) was the most isolated negative bacteria from pork and poultry samples in 296 samples, with a prevalence of 48 per cent and 49 per cent, respectively followed by klebsiella in 117 samples, salmonella in 109 samples, shigella in 46 samples and Staphylococcus spp in 41 samples.
E. coli is a type of bacteria that usually lives in the intestines. It is also found in the gut of some animals. Some strains of the bacteria can cause diarrhoea if you eat contaminated food or drink dirty water.
While many associate E. coli with food poisoning, you can also get pneumonia and urinary tract infections from different types of the bacteria. In fact, 95 per cent of urinary tract infections are caused by the bacteria.
“It can make you sick by making a toxin called shiga. This toxin damages the lining of your intestine,’’ says WHO.
Salmonella, on the other hand, is the bacteria that is most frequently reported as the cause of food-related illnesses. It causes an upset stomach, diarrhoea, fever, and pain and cramping in the stomach.
Dr Victor Yamo, the World Animal Protection farming campaigns manager and lead researcher in the study said the presence of salmonella and shigella bacteria, and more so E coli, is worrying and measures have to be put in place to cut their levels.
“Globally, there is an increasing emergence of resistant bacteria (superbugs) which is jeopardising the efficacy of antibiotics, drugs that have played a vital role in reducing mortality and morbidity in both animals and humans” said Dr Yamo.
Superbugs kill, 700,000 people annually in the world and they are projected to cause 10 million deaths per annum by 2050, with a cumulative economic impact of $100 trillion.
The study also tested bacterial isolate susceptibility to 15 combinations of commonly used antibiotics and out of the 525 isolates examined, less than 20 per cent of samples were negative of resistant bacteria.
Shockingly, 202 samples exhibited resistance to more than three antibiotics and were considered to be multi-drugresistant while 61 per cent showed resistance to less than three antibiotics.
“Chicken samples were more significantly contaminated with multi-drug resistant bacteria than pork, with 43 and 34 per cent, respectively,” states the study.
Resistance was noted to high priority antibiotics used in the country, including Cefepime, Cefoxatime, Ciprofloxacin, Vancomycin, and Erythromycin.
“Ensuring high welfare standards is one of the methods that is worth instituting at farm level to help in addressing AMR (antimicrobial resistance) crisis. We should strengthen procurement policies that ensure that animals are raised in a humane environmen,” Dr Yamo said.
He warned that 40 per cent of the antibiotics being used on animals are unnecessary.
‘’It is worrying that all we are consuming are antibiotics and there is resistance to some of the best antibiotics considered high priority by WHO,” he said.
This comes barely two years after an expose by NTV on how supermarkets use toxic chemicals to make their meat look fresher for longer. Laboratory tests on meat samples revealed high levels of sodium metabisulphite, a chemical so corrosive that the supermarket staff handling the meat have to wear protective gloves.
The study recommends that livestock product suppliers commit to using antibiotics responsible in farming, ending the use of the medicines for growth promotion purposes.