What’s bugging your meat?
Grist - April 17, 2013
What�s bugging your meat?
By Tom Laskawy <http://grist.org/author/tom-laskawy/>
Take a deep breath, carnivores: 87 percent of supermarket meat �
including beef, pork, chicken, and turkey products � tests positive for
normal and antibiotic-resistant forms of /Enterococcus/ bacteria
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enterococcus>. Fifty percent of ground
turkey contains resistant /E. coli/, 10 percent of chicken parts and
ground turkey tests positive for resistant /salmonella/, and 26 percent
of chicken parts come contaminated with resistant /campylobacter/.
Resistant or not, the mere presence of these types of microbes means the
majority of our meat comes into contact with fecal matter at some point.
Not very appetizing, is it?
The government recently admitted something a lot of conscious eaters
probably already suspect: A significant majority of supermarket meat is
contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But it did so vewwy,
vewwy quietly. It came buried in the FDA�s 2011 Retail Meat Report
which reveals the results from periodic testing of common supermarket
meat products for bacterial contamination and bacterial resistance to
multiple antibiotics. The FDA leaves these numbers opaque, but thanks to
calculations by the Environmental Working Group
<http://www.ewg.org/meateatersguide/superbugs> (EWG) using the
government�s data, we know just how terrifying these results are.
The threat of these superbugs goes beyond the academic. Three of the
bugs listed above cause tens of thousands of illnesses and hundreds of
deaths a year. Resistant /salmonella/-tainted meat recently caused
one of them quite deadly
And /E. coli/ from supermarket chicken has been linked
to millions of antibiotic-resistant urinary tract infections in women.
For dedicated Grist readers, this shouldn�t be a total surprise. We�ve
that researchers have been tracking
antibiotic-resistant bacteria on meat for several years
But the fact that most forms of superbugs seem to be on the increase is
no less disturbing.
The reasons why aren�t a mystery to most scientists. While overuse of
antibiotics in human medicine plays a role, the preponderance of
evidence suggests that the rampant overuse of antibiotics in livestock
drives resistant microbe strains off the farm and into communities
Medical researchers are all but begging livestock producers
to scale back on the heaps of antibiotics fed to food animals every year
� sound advice since 80 percent of all antibiotics
in the U.S. go to food animals � but the industry contends that such a
reduction would be impossible. That�s true in a way: Most livestock
would not be able to survive the cramped, stressful, disease-ridden
conditions in which they are raised without a constant low-level dosing
of antibiotics. As an additional boon, these antibiotics seem not only
to prevent disease but also to increase animal size and weight for
reasons that are not well understood (although scientists are suggesting
it has something to do with screwing up animals� microbiomes).
Of course, large-scale agriculture has shown the ability to severely
restrict antibiotic use in livestock without courting disaster � in
Denmark. Back in 1994, that country, one of the largest exporters of
pork in the world
<http://grist.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/factsheet.pdf> [PDF], embarked
on the so-called �Danish experiment� that prohibited farmers from
feeding healthy pigs low doses of antibiotics. Even though farmers were
still allowed to treat sick animals with antibiotics, usage since that
time has dropped by about 40 percent. Meanwhile, pork production
continued to increase.
Agribusiness was so threatened by the Danes� positive results (which
included a general reduction in the prevalence of resistant bacteria on
and off farms), that Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of pork-rich Iowa took to
the Senate floor
to [erroneously] denounce their methods. The reason for agribusiness
aggression? Denmark did have to make changes to the way its farmers
� something U.S. agribusiness has not been willing to attempt (with
perhaps one notable exception
Meanwhile, the FDA, which gets low marks
in this area from government watchdog agencies, remains a willing
conspirator in this indiscriminate overuse of antibiotics. It recently
ended efforts to regulate their use, preferring to rely on an
ineffective, �voluntary� approach
Since companies don�t have to report � and the FDA doesn�t have to track
� the exact amounts and types of antibiotics fed to animals, it�s easy
enough to deny culpability.
Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), Congress� sole microbiologist, has
repeatedly introduced a bill to restrict agricultural use of antibiotics
but it never gets very far. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has joined her
in proposing a reporting requirement
antibiotics in food animals, but that bill hasn�t gotten much further.
For now, it�s up to consumers to protect themselves from superbugs as
best they can. As EWG concludes, they must �assume that all meat is
contaminated with disease-causing bacteria.� EWG recommends avoiding
factory-farmed (i.e. supermarket) meat and instead choosing meat from
small producers or labeled as antibiotic-free. There�s no guarantee that
local or organic meat will be free from superbugs, but it tilts the odds
in your favor. EWG also offers a downloadable guide
<http://www.ewg.org/meateatersguide/superbugs> to avoiding superbugs in
meat. Aside from that, practicing food safety
<http://www.foodsafety.gov/> in the home becomes more important than
ever. Until the FDA or industry gets its act together, we�re on our own.
/Tom Laskawy is a founder and executive director of the //Food &
Environment Reporting Network <http://thefern.org/>//and a contributing
writer at Grist covering food and agricultural policy. His writing has
also appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, The New York Times, and
The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter <http://www.twitter.com/tlaskawy/>./
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