Farm Ireland

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Dairy industry must act now on superbugs

The link between new strains of MRSA and cows should serve as a wake-up call for the dairy industry.

A study published in the reputable Lancet medical journal explained how a new breed of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria that is resistant to methicillin-based antibiotics has been identified in humans, cows and milk.

On one hand, this was not such a big deal since the new bug is killed during pasteurisation and unlikely to pose any threat to human health.

However, the discovery should be considered an early warning for a food industry that is becoming increasingly reliant on the future prospects of its dairy sector.

Staphylococcus aureus is no stranger to dairy farmers since it is the most common cause of chronic mastitis in cows.

It is suspected that it is the constant battle that dairy men wage against the infection with intra-mammary tubes of antibiotics that is driving the emergence of superbugs such as this latest strain of MRSA.

However, the data suggests that dairy farmers are not winning this war. The key measure of the levels of mastitis infection in our national herd is the somatic cell count (SCC). In 2007, a fifth of all milk recorded herds had an SCC of more than 400,000. More recent figures show that 15pc of all herds with more than 150 cows had similar SCC levels.

Milk with this level of SCC is not actually eligible for sale for human consumption within the EU and ends up being processed into lower-value products for third country markets. To avoid this revenue-sapping scenario, our competitors in Denmark and Holland have focused on driving down their national SCC averages to close to 200,000.

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They have achieved this through a multi-disciplinary approach similar to that being currently promoted by Animal Health Ireland through their Cell Check programme.

But the real problem with our sky-high SCCs is that it shows that all the antibiotics that our farmers are throwing at the problem are not actually curing it. Our vets have been telling us for some time that it is actually prevention that will solve this problem rather than trying to cure it with truck-loads of antibiotics.

And as Dr Patrick Wall says, "the more we use them, the quicker we lose them". In other words, the more antibiotics that we throw blindly at this problem, the more pressure we are putting on bacteria to develop resistance.

But there needs to be a much greater awareness throughout the dairy sector of the real dangers of further superbugs developing if we don't tackle this issue head-on. Let's not wait for the next MRSA headline to kick-start action.

Indo Farming