Antimicrobial resistant bacteria linking animal and human health: determination of the risks along the pork value chain in Vietnam

This project is conducted at Uppsala University with Johanna Lindahl as PI and Gunilla Ström Hallenberg, with a PhD from SLU, as a new postdoc. Their work focuses on the occurrence and transmission of antimicrobial resistance in the food value chain in Vietnam. The long-term goal is that their findings can be used to devise guidelines for organisations working with food hygiene and to identify ways to handle the problems.

Pork meat at a market
         Photo: Gunilla Ström Hallenberg

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in pathogens is believed to be one of the biggest threats to human health in the future. One major contributor to AMR globally is the extensive, and often unnecessary, use of antibiotics in animal production. The extent of this use varies between countries but estimates suggest that a main increase will take place in the pig and poultry sectors in emerging economies in Asia.

“From animals, AMR can reach humans through food consumption. To mitigate this, it is important to understand the presence and risks of AMR along the food value chains in developing countries. This is what our project is about,” says Johanna Lindahl.

AMR in pork value chains

Vietnam has a high level of intensification of the livestock production but they also still have some of the issues common to developing countries, in that the animals are kept in disease-prone environments and there is a general lack of biosecurity.

“The Vietnamese people eat a lot of pork and in our project we will study how Salmonella and E.coli bacteria are spread in the pork value chains, for instance from the farm to the slaughterhouse, on to shops or markets and finally to the consumers,” Gunilla Ström Hallenberg explains. “We will also examine the presence of AMR genes in the bacteria.”

The researchers also aim to identify critical steps where transmission is extra high and if there are steps where AMR is spread to other foodstuff such as vegetables.

“In another part of the project we have planned to examine human samples to see if there is a spread to people, but with the present pandemic this might not be possible to realise,” Gunilla says.

Vegetables and pork meat at a market
                                                                                                                      Photo: Gunilla Ström Hallenberg

Benefits from the collaboration

Gunilla and Johanna both have a background in animal science, Johanna as a veterinarian and Gunilla as an agronomist in animal science, but haven’t had any collaboration before. They are confident that their combined experiences will be valuable for the project.

Pigs in a stable
    Photo: Gunilla Ström Hallenberg

“Gunilla will contribute with her understanding of agriculture in countries in Southeast Asia. Her knowledge on livestock management and other issues from the agricultural side will also be very valuable, both for this project and for the Zoonosis Science Center at Uppsala University. She understands how agriculture works and what to take into consideration. It is important to see the correlation between animals and humans, and not only see the problem from the human side,” Johanna says.

”Yes, from the human side it’s easy to say ‘Why don’t you just stop using antibiotics in farm animals’, but it’s not that simple. It’s important to include knowledge about what actually works,” Gunilla agrees.

In the project, Gunilla will learn more about lab work and resistance mechanisms. Her research has previously focused on studying AMR in farms and the current focus on the food chains will widen her experience. She will also have an opportunity to expand her network and learn to work in other research teams.

One Health as an area for collaboration

The U-Share funding was very welcome for establishing their collaboration and they hope that additional researchers from SLU can be associated with the project, thereby increasing the interactions between the universities

“The One Health area is an ideal area for collaboration between Uppsala University and SLU,” Johanna says. “Research is conducted at both universities and I think this could be exploited better. But today available grants are usually not large enough, so what would be a strength – a collaboration with many partners – ends up as a disadvantage when the funding has to be split between many collaborators. We hope that our current project will produce results that can be used in a larger project for which we can apply for additional funding, for instance for a doctoral student.”