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Antimicrobial resistance and food safety

Practicing good food safety can reduce the risk of foodborne illness and help limit the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Microorganisms, including bacteria, are everywhere. They can spread through the interactions and movement of people, animals, food and the environment. Some bacteria are good, some are harmful, and some are resistant to antibiotics (which are antimicrobials). Everyone can play a role in slowing the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria. 

The Australian food supply is one of the safest in the world, but people can still get sick from eating contaminated foods. Foodborne illness can be caused by bacteria and in some cases these bacteria can also be antimicrobial resistant. This means the steps we take to keep food safe and reduce the chance of foodborne illness, can also help reduce the spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). 

For most people, foodborne illness is mild and they don't need to be treated with antibiotics. But people with severe symptoms or more vulnerable groups like the young, old and people with weakened immune systems may need antimicrobial treatment. In these cases, foodborne illness can be harder to treat if the bacteria are resistant to commonly used medicines (just like other infections with AMR bacteria). 

Food safety for food businesses - What you can do 

Food safety for consumers - What you can do 

Check out our Food Safety Basics page to see how you can reduce your chances of foodborne illness and at the same time help to reduce the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria. 

You can watch a video about what AMR and find out what the Australian Government is doing and more about AMR

You can also learn more about AMR from the World Health Organization and the World Organisation for Animal Health

What is antimicrobial resistance (AMR)?

Antimicrobials are medicines used to prevent and treat infections caused by microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites) in people, animals and plants. The term antimicrobials refers to antibiotics, antivirals, antifungals and antiparasitics. Bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics, viruses to antivirals, fungi to antifungals and parasites to antiparasitics.

AMR occurs when bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites change over time and no longer respond to antimicrobials. When this happens, infections are harder to treat and the risk of disease spread, severe illness and death increases.

For example, bacteria can become resistant to the antibiotics we use to kill them. While taking antibiotics will destroy most of the bad bacteria, sometimes a few resistant ones can survive. These can then multiply and spread. Bacteria can develop resistance through mutation (random changes to their DNA) or from genes transferring from one bacteria to another. As a result of AMR, antibiotics can become ineffective, meaning common diseases are harder to treat, and lifesaving medical procedures are riskier.

The main cause of AMR in bacteria is antibiotic use. While antibiotics are essential to modern medicine, the more antibiotics Australians use, the faster resistant bacteria will develop. Because antibiotics in Australia are used to treat people and animals, to reduce AMR we need to understand the interconnection between people, animals and our shared environment. This is called a 'One Health' approach.

Why is a One Health approach important?

A One Health approach is important because antibiotic-resistant bacteria can potentially spread between and within the sectors of public health, agriculture, environment and food.

Antibiotic use by humans puts pressure on bacteria to become resistant. Resistant bacteria can spread between people through direct contact, coughing, sneezing and exposure to body fluids. Bacteria can also pass between pets, livestock or wildlife and to humans through direct contact.

Antibiotic use in animals also puts pressure on bacteria to become resistant. Resistant bacteria from food-producing animals can move through the food supply chain and be present in the food we eat. Resistant bacteria can also move through the environment and contaminate food crops. People can also transfer resistant bacteria from themselves to food during food production or preparation.

Resistant bacteria present in animal waste, sewerage and food waste can also contaminate the environment, including soil and water. Bacteria in the environment can then spread back to animals, food and people. This interconnectedness makes a One Health Approach essential to tackling the problem of AMR.

Testing for antimicrobial-resistant bacteria in food

Antimicrobials can be used by farmers to keep their animals healthy. As a result, very low levels of antimicrobial residues 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 allowable residue limits for antimicrobial residues in food. Food can't be sold if it contains residues above these limits. Regular tests show antimicrobial residues rarely exceed these limits.

State and territory agriculture departments control and monitor the use of antimicrobial products in animals. Antimicrobial residues in imported food, such as seafood and honey, are also tested at the border by the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF). Results of these tests are available on the department's website.

DAFF runs the National Residue Survey to monitor residues of antimicrobials in food and checks maximum residue limits (MRL) comply with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority standard. The 2015-16 survey sampled over 9000 meat, egg, honey and aquatic species, finding compliance rates of over 99 per cent.

World AMR Awareness Week

World AMR Awareness Week runs from 18 to 24 November every year

Visit www.who.int/campaigns/world-antimicrobial-awareness-week.

The theme for 2023 is Preventing Antimicrobial Resistance Together.

The international initiative seeks to increase awareness of the growing problem of resistance to antibiotics and other antimicrobial medicines.

AMR is a threat to humans, animals, plants and the environment. It affects us all. That is why working together under a 'One Health' approach, is needed to tackle AMR.

Multiple factors have increased the threat of antimicrobial resistance worldwide, including the incorrect use of medicines in humans, animals, and agriculture. This makes tackling AMR a shared responsibility.

You can watch a video about what AMR and find out what the Australian Government is doing and more about AMR.

You can also learn more about AMR from the World Health Organization and the World Organisation for Animal Health.

Page last updated 11 December 2023