Superbugs In Meat: How Did Supermarket Meat Become Infected With Resistant Bacteria?

By Philip Ross on April 18, 2013 11:10 AM EDT

superbugs in supermarket meat
Scientists say drug-resistant superbugs have invaded our supermarkets, and their numbers are multiplying. (Photo: Flickr/snowpea&bokchoi)

Are there antibiotic-resistant superbugs in supermarket meat? Scientists say yes, and it's invading our food at an alarming rate.

A study conducted by the Environmental Working Group, or EWG, found that a full 81 percent of ground turkey, 69 percent of pork chops, 55 percent of ground beef and 39 percent of chicken breasts, wings and thighs, contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which are evolved versions of pathogens like salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli pathogens.

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To conduct their research, the EWG analyzed data from 2011 collected by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, a joint project of the federal Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The EWG discovered that just seven years ago, the prevalence of drug-resistant bacteria in our food was far less, with just 16 percent of ground turkey and 13 percent of chicken containing bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

How do we account for this huge spike in dangerous superbugs in our supermarket meat?

Antibiotics' Unintended Consequence

Surprisingly, nearly four times as many antibiotics go to meat and poultry production than to people, according to EWG. In 2011, pharmaceutical makers sold about 30 million pounds of antibiotics to livestock producers - nearly 80 percent of the American antibiotics market, EWG reports.

It's this overuse and, really, abuse, of antibiotics in the food production sector that accounts for the superbugs in our supermarket meat.

The process goes something like this: Animals receive unnecessary antibiotics because it helps them gain weight faster, a market advantage livestock producers started exploiting after World War II as antibiotics came into widespread use. Bacteria like E. coli and salmonella, which usually infect livestock through fecal contamination of their feed and water, become resistant to antibiotics. These superbug versions of the bacteria then travel on meat from farms to stores.

"Industrial-scale animal production is an ideal climate for breeding superbugs," researchers at EWG said in the study. "It offers an environment in which bacteria can develop antibiotic resistance and spread it via human workers, animals, water, soil and air."

This is something the FDA has known about since the 1970s, but its efforts to stifle antibiotic overuse in the livestock industry amounts to only voluntary recommendations, not laws, EWG reports.

What Can Be Done About Superbugs In Meat?

Bacteria in our food can be seriously dangerous for humans. E. coli, for one, causes severe diarrhea, abdominal pain and vomiting. In very serious cases of E. coli poisoning, it can even cause kidney failure and death, according to FoodSafety.gov.

Salmonella, one of the most common causes of food poisoning, has similar symptoms to E. coli poisoning, but the illness usually goes away quicker.

The best way to avoid these kinds of food poisoning is to thoroughly cook your meat and to not cross-contaminate your utensils in the kitchen. Also, the EWG recommends that consumers buy less factory-farmed meat and purchase more meat raised without antibiotics.

You can find out where to buy this kind of meat here.

Read more:

Meat Recall: What Are The Dangers Of Listeria?

Red Meat And Heart Disease: What Does New Study Tell Us About Carnitine Chemical?

Horse Meat In Lasagna: Food Safety Agency Intervenes In Growing Contamination Crisis [REPORT]

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