Is there a risk of medicine or antibiotic residues in the food we eat?

Protecting the consumer

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 represent a hazard to the health of the consumer. EU rules set the standards for “withdrawal periods”. This is the minimum time lapse required between the treatment of an animal and when it or its produce is allowed to enter the food chain. These are established for each veterinary medicine to ensure that if residues arise from treating animals, they are at levels below specific, scientifically set limits (maximum residue limit). The amount of a veterinary medicine present in treated animals and their products, such as milk or eggs, declines over time as it is metabolised and is eliminated from the animal’s body. Tests to establish the rate at which these levels decline are part of the food-safety testing that must be submitted by companies requesting permission to sell a new veterinary medicine for use in food-producing animals.

This assures that no unsafe residues are found in food. As a precaution the actual maximum residue limits are often thousands of times lower than the level at which any traces of a 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.

EU Regulations on residues 

All animal medicines are strictly regulated, meaning that their quality, safety – to animals as well as people and the environment – and efficacy is assured. In addition, there are a range of safety factors 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 the 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 (MRLs) set under MRLs Regulation 470/2009and listed in Regulation 37/2010. The assessment of the safety of residues is carried out by the EMA’s Committee for Medicinal Products for Veterinary Use (CVMP). Establishing maximum residue limits involves several steps. At each stage, regulators build in a safety factor designed to minimise any potential risk to those consuming food from treated animals. 

The latest reportfrom the European Food Safety Authority (2017) on the results from the monitoring of veterinary medicinal product residues show that for overall residues, 99.69% of samples provided were compliant. And for antibacterials, which includes antibiotics, 99.83% were compliant. 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.