Are there antibiotic residues in our food?

Put quite simply: there are no harmful residues of antibiotics in the food we eat. Strict EU rules protect the consumer from any harmful residues in animal-sourced foods by setting a timeframe for eliminating any traces of antibiotics or other medicines from the animal before any food products enter the food chain.

By law, foodstuffs, such as meat, milk or eggs, obtained from animals treated with veterinary medicines or exposed to biocidal products used in farming must not contain any residue that might be hazardous to the consumer’s health. EU rules also set the standards for “withdrawal periods“. This is the minimum time lapse required between the treatment of an animal and when it or its products is allowed to enter the food chain.

Withdrawal periods are established for each veterinary medicine to ensure that if residues arise from treating animals, they are below specific, scientifically set limits called Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs). When an animal is administered a medicine, the presence of medicine residues in the animals and their food products declines over time as it is metabolised and eliminated from the animal’s body. Tests to establish the rate at which these levels decline are part of the food-safety testing that animal health companies must submit when requesting a licence to sell a new veterinary medicine for use in food-producing animals.

This ensures that no unsafe residues are found in food. As a strict precaution, the actual maximum Residue Limits are often thousands of times lower than the level at which any traces of medicine would have any impact on consumer health. These limits are strictly monitored by national authorities to ensure, through residues surveillance schemes, that all foods coming from animal products are safe.

All animal medicines are strictly regulated, meaning their quality, safety to animals and people and the environment, and efficacy are assured. In addition, a range of safety factors are in place to protect consumers. Where animals have been treated with medicines, regulatory bodies such as the European Medicines Agency and CODEX, a standardisation body supported by FAO and WHO, set strict limits on the residual levels permitted to enter the food chain.

All veterinary medicines, including antibiotics used in farm animals, have Maximum Residue Limits set under MRLs Regulation 470/2009 and listed in Regulation 37/2010. The EMA’s Committee for Medicinal Products for Veterinary Use (CVMP) also assesses the safety of residues. Establishing maximum residue limits involves several steps. At each stage, regulators build a safety factor to minimise potential risks to those consuming food from animals treated with medicines.

The latest report from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on the results from the monitoring of veterinary medicinal product residues shows that for overall residues, over 620,000 samples collected in all EU countries, plus Iceland and Norway, the presence of undesirable substances beyond the limits was found in only 0.17% of cases. And for antibacterials, which include antibiotics, only 0.14% of the samples showed presence beyond the limits (showing a continuous decrease in positive samples). The samples are analysed according to specific EU rules: Council Directive 96/23/EC on measures to monitor certain substances and residues thereof in live animals and animal products. The continued successes in ensuring food safety result from greater respect by farmers for the withdrawal periods for treatments and the continuous decrease in the use of antibiotics, confirming the commitment of livestock farming and veterinary medicine sectors in the fight against antibiotic resistance. A “mission” that the livestock value chain proactively takes on in a One Health manner.