Antibiotics are used by primary producers to keep their animals healthy and as a result low residues of antibiotics may be present in some of the foods we eat. Standard 1.4.2 and Schedule 20 of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code lists the maximum limits for antibiotic residues in food. Food can’t be sold if it contains residues above these limits. Regular tests show antibiotic residues rarely exceed these limits.
With concerns about the increasing threat of antibiotic resistance in humans, the Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, along with other agencies including FSANZ, have undertaken work to ensure a coordinated strategy is in place to limit the development of antimicrobial resistance.
This work has resulted in the National Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy which guides action by governments, and the human and animal health, agriculture and food sectors to tackle antimicrobial resistance.
What is antibiotic resistance?
Antibiotic resistance is when bacteria can stop antibiotics working against them. Some bacteria are naturally resistant to antibiotics, while others can develop resistance through mutation (random changes to DNA) or sharing of genetic material. Diseases caused by resistant bacteria can be very difficult to treat.
Globally, there are concerns bacteria are increasingly developing antibiotic resistance both in humans and animals. While it is thought resistance mostly happens due to the overuse of antibiotics in human medicine, there is some concern it could happen due to the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals.
Testing for antibiotics in food
State and territory agriculture departments control and monitor the use of antibiotic products in animals. Antibiotic residues in imported food, such as seafood and honey, are also tested at the border by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. Results of these tests are available on the department's website in monthly failing food reports and summaries of inspection data are provided in six monthly reports.
The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources also conducts the National Residue Survey to monitor residues of antibiotics in food and checks maximum residue limit (MRL) compliance against the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) standard. The 2015‒16 survey sampled over 9000 meat, egg, honey and aquatic species finding compliance rates of over 99 per cent.
Do antibiotic residues in food pose a risk to our health?
Regular testing of local and imported foods typically finds minor issues with less than one per cent of samples tested. It is highly unlikely that residues in food would lead to resistance because residues are very low and are likely to be further reduced by cooking, other food processing and by metabolism in the gut.
Before an antibiotic can be legally used, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) must be satisfied that its use will not result in residues that would be a risk to the safety of people.
Industry and veterinary programs are in place to support the correct use of antibiotics in animal production.
FSANZ also ensures potential residues in treated food do not represent a risk to public health and safety through dietary exposure assessments in accordance with internationally accepted practices and procedures.