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Antibiotics in food

(July 2014)

​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 in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code​ lists the maximum permissible limits for antibiotic residues in food and food cannot be sold if it contains residues above these limits. Regular tests show antibiotic residues rarely exceed the limits set in the Code.

Testing for antibiotics in food

State and territory agriculture departments control and monitor the use of antibiotic products. Antibiotic residues in imported food, such as seafood and honey, are also tested at the border by the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture. Testing results 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 also conducts the Australian National Residue Survey​ to monitor residues of antibiotics in food and checks MRL (maximum residue limit) compliance against the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) standard. During 2012‒13, the National Residue Survey tested 2080 samples of animal products for a range of antibiotic residues. Of these, only 30 contained detectable residues of antibiotics with none of them being above the APVMA MRL standard. This means that 100% of samples tested for antibiotics were compliant with the APVMA MRL standard.

What is antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotic resistance is when bacteria can withstand treatment to one or more antibiotics. 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.​

There are some concerns bacteria are increasingly developing antibiotic resistance. It is thought resistance mostly happens due to the overuse of antibiotics in human medicine, but there is concern it could happen due to the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals.

A committee established to look at this issue reported to the government that it is highly unlikely residues in food would lead to resistance because residues in food are already very low and are likely to be further reduced by cooking, other food processing and by metabolism in the gut.

Do antibiotic residues in food pose a risk to our health?

Before an antibiotic can be legally used, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) must be satisfied that it will not result in residues that would be an undue 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 an unacceptable risk to public health and safety. In assessing this risk, FSANZ conducts dietary exposure assessments in accordance with internationally accepted practices and procedures.

Antibiotic resistant marker genes are sometimes used in the production of genetically modified foods. However, the World Health Organization’s Food Safety Unit has concluded that the chance of these genes affecting human health is effectively zero.

In response to fears about the use of antimicrobials in some New Zealand apple orchards, FSANZ conducted a risk assessment and found a negligible food safety concern.

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