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Warning on MRSA in EU pig herds

PUBLISHED: 16:47 28 November 2009 | UPDATED: 08:34 28 March 2014

NOVEMBER 28, 2009: The first Europe-wide testing of pig herds for MRSA has found that the bacteria is present in 17 of 24 member states tested, according to the Soil Association.

The study revealed that MRSA was not found in any British pigs tested, but the Soil Association is calling for improved testing because it could easily have been missed due to a poor testing method which had not been checked before the survey began.

"The testing method used pooled dust samples from pig pens, instead of nasal swabs taken from the pigs themselves. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which published the research, has admitted the method had a “lack of sensitivity” and that “the absence of any MRSA from the tested samples in this survey does not imply that a member state is MRSA-free in the holding types investigated,” says the association.

MRSA could therefore be present at low levels in British pigs, says the SA, which in time could escalate into a major problem, due to the extremely high levels of antibiotic use in intensive pig farming in the UK. "Unfortunately, the UK is the only large country in Western Europe which has refused to carry out its own national survey of pigs using nasal swabs," it said.

"Farm-animal MRSA is a new strain which has developed due to the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms. It can spread from farm animals to humans, where it has already caused many life-threatening conditions including skin, blood, heart and bone infections, as well as pneumonia. It has also caused at least one fatality.

"In the Netherlands, the proportion of human MRSA cases of farm-animal origin rose from 0% in 2002 to 40% in 2008 . Those most at risk are people who work with colonised farm animals, and their families. However, some cases have already occurred in the wider community, including in Scotland. The much lower level of antibiotic use on organic farms is likely to minimise the chances of MRSA emerging on these farms.

"The UK also imports live chicks and turkey poultry from countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, which have already found MRSA in their poultry, but no testing of British poultry has yet been carried out."

Soil Association Policy Adviser, Richard Young said: “It is good news that MRSA has not yet been found in British pigs, but we are in a rapidly developing situation with several different strains of farm-animal MRSA emerging. MRSA testing is simple and relatively inexpensive and there can be no excuse for not introducing a comprehensive UK testing programme in pigs, poultry cattle and horses, based on the tried and tested use of nasal swabs.

“We strongly welcomed action earlier this year by the National Pig Association to discourage dealers from buying boatloads of weaner pigs from mainland Europe, which would have provided an almost certain route for this serious new type of MRSA to become established on British pig farms. We are, however, concerned that importing live animals, including pigs, from affected countries has not been suspended and feel, at the very least, that any producer importing live animals must be required to have them tested for MRSA and quarantined under strict conditions.”

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