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FDA Report: Alarming Amounts of "Superbugs" in Supermarkets


A federal government report on antibiotic resistance reveals that superbugs in meat is a much more common and widespread problem than anyone would like to admit. New strains of hearty, antibiotic resistant salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter bacteria appear to be showing up in alarmingly high percentages of the chicken, turkey, pork and beef we buy at the supermarket.

These findings come from a little-noticed report the FDA released back in December. The report, which was dumped onto the FDA's web site without so much as a mention or a press release, compiles data from 5,236 samples of chicken breasts, ground turkey, ground beef and pork chops that were taken in 2008. It's unclear why the FDA either waited or took so long to release the info.

On her blog, Maryn McKenna, author of a book about antibiotic resistance called Superbug and the first person to write about the report, summarized some of the findings: In 2008, 45% of salmonella on chicken were resistant to the antibiotic tetracycline and 30% were immune to penicillins. Among enterococci bacteria on chicken, 65% were resistant to tetracycline and more than 90% to lincosamides, which include the everyday drug clindamycin.

Overall, salmonella, including resistant and non, was found in 12% of chicken and campylobacter in 49% of samples.

What this means for the millions of Americans who eat meat regularly is that our lunch not only has the ability to make us horribly sick, but that if we do become ill, the antibiotics that could be used to help us recover may not work.

It sounds quite scary -- and it is -- but the good news is that proper cooking kills most, if not all, of these dangerous bacteria. The danger comes when meat isn't cooked thoroughly or handled properly -- like if juice from raw meat comes into contact with other foods or hands that have touched uncooked meat are used to prepare other foods.

For meat industry groups, who are already feeling besieged by critics who charge that industrial livestock farming is inhumane and causes huge environmental messes, this is one more headache they don't need. Meat producers use antibiotics on large factory farms, where thousands or tens of thousands of animals are confined in crowded quarters, to help prevent the spread of disease. They also use these drugs because, for reasons still unknown, they allow the animals to grow faster.

Such an overly judicious use of antibiotics has led to resistance because the relatively low doses administered to farm animals don't kill all bacteria, allowing the heartiest ones to grow and mutate into superbugs. For the most part, Big Meat sees nothing wrong with its record of antibiotic use, and appears determined to defend it.

The question now is whether the FDA will do anything about the information in its report, which is based on the government's National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS). Last June, FDA Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein took the bold, unprecedented step of saying the meat industry should stop using antibiotics on pigs, cattle and chicken simply for the purpose of making them grow faster. Then in December, much to the further chagrin of the meat industry, the agency released data on exactly how many antibiotics are used on farms -- some 29 million pounds in 2009, or about 60% of all antibiotics in the U.S. (Update 2/24/2011: Actually it's 80%. The FDA confirmed that the percentage of antibiotics in the U.S. going to animal agriculture is a much higher percentage than everyone had previously assumed.)

But less than a month later, Sharfstein, the FDA's leader in this fight, resigned to become Maryland's secretary of health and mental hygiene, casting doubt on whether the FDA will do anything to stop what is now clearly a runaway train.

Image by Flickr kaibara87
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