Indigenous food sources as vectors of Escherichia coli and antibiotic resistance

van Hamelsveld, S
Kurenbach, B
Paull, DJ
Godsoe, William
Ferguson, GC
Heinemann, JA
Journal Article
Fields of Research
ANZSRC::321002 Food properties (incl. characteristics and health benefits) , ANZSRC::401104 Health and ecological risk assessment , ANZSRC::321005 Public health nutrition , ANZSRC::300605 Food safety, traceability, certification and authenticity , ANZSRC::410504 Surface water quality processes and contaminated sediment assessment , ANZSRC::450906 Te whakahaere whenua me te wai o te Māori (Māori land and water management)
The contamination of surface waters by fecal bacteria, measured by the number of Escherichia coli, is a significant public health issue. When these bacteria are also resistant to antimicrobials, infections are more complicated to treat. While water is regularly tested at recreational sites, wild-harvested foods, known as mahinga kai by the indigenous Māori people of Aotearoa New Zealand, are commonly overlooked as a source of exposure to potential pathogens and antimicrobial resistance (AMR). We investigate two likely sources of risk from harvesting aquatic wild foods. The first is water contact, and the second is contact with/ingestion of the harvest. We used E. coli as a proxy for microbial water quality at harvesting sites. Two popular mahinga kai species were also harvested and assessed. We found antibiotic-resistant bacteria on watercress (Nasturtium officinale) and cockles (Austrovenus stutchburyi). One-third of E. coli isolates were conjugative donors of at least one resistance phenotype. Tank experiments were used to track the internalization of E. coli by Greenshell/lip mussels (Perna canaliculus). Greenshell mussels kept at environmentally relevant concentrations of E. coli were colonized to levels considered unsafe for human consumption in 24 h. Finally, we measured horizontal gene transfer between bacteria within the shellfish, what we termed ‘intra-shellular’ conjugation. The transmission frequency of plasmid RP4 was significantly higher in mussels than in water alone. Our results indicate that shellfish could promote the dissemination of antibiotic resistance. They highlight the need to limit or reduce human pathogenic bacteria where food is gathered.