The October 4, 2009 New York Times story, “E. coli Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection,” is a chilling reminder to the public that we gamble unknowingly with our health every day, even when safer, viable options to the current systems are readily available. The Times story follows a convoluted and widespread chain of production that ended with hamburger contaminated with the virulent E. coli strain O157:H7 being sold to the public, leaving one young woman paralyzed and more than 900 others ill. The story recounts the secrecy, obfuscation, and duplicity that processors engage in to avoid testing beef for E. coli and to protect a system that gives rise to tainted beef.
Maybe it’s time we demanded a health warning on intensively produced meat products. Because when it comes to the link between modern so-called science-based industrial livestock farming and the rise of life-threatening antibiotic resistant bacteria, the evidence just keeps on coming.
Hot on the heels of a damning report by the Environmental Working Group, which revealed high levels of potentially life-threatening antibiotic-resistant bacteria on raw supermarket meat, the respected Consumer Reports has found potential disease-causing organisms in 90 percent of ground turkey samples purchased from stores nationwide. What’s more, many of the bacteria they identified were resistant to more than three antibiotic drug classes.
In their first-ever lab analysis of ground turkey products, Consumer Reports researchers carried out tests on 257 samples purchased at retail stores nationwide for the presence of five key food poisoning bacteria: enterococcus, E. coli, staphylococcus aureus, salmonella, and campylobacter. The results are of grave concern to us all.
Consumer Reports found at least one of these five food poisoning bacteria in 90 percent of the samples tested. Strains of enterococcus and E. coli bacteria – both commonly associated with fecal waste contamination – were identified on 69 percent and 60 percent respectively of the ground turkey samples tested. In addition, more than half of the enterococcus and the E. coli bacteria were resistant to three or more groups of closely related antibiotics. Three samples of ground turkey were contaminated with the life-threatening methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), while 12 of the samples harbored Salmonella bacteria, one of the most common causes of foodborne illness in the U.S. Again, it is worrying to note that two-thirds of the Salmonella bacteria were resistant to three or more important antibiotics.
“Our findings strongly suggest that there is a direct relationship between the routine use of antibiotics in animal production and increased antibiotic resistance in bacteria on ground turkey,” says Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Director of the Consumer Safety and Sustainability Group at Consumer Reports. “It’s very concerning that antibiotics fed to turkeys are creating resistance to antibiotics used in human medicine.”
The problem is that most consumers are still not aware that virtually all intensively farmed animals in the U.S. now routinely receive low, sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics in their feed and water. In fact, we use more antibiotics per pound of meat produced than any other nation in the world and a staggering 80 percent of all the antibiotics produced in the U.S. are used on food-producing animals. The reason? Feeding regular doses of sub-therapeutic antibiotics helps to maximize production of meat, milk or eggs by improving feed efficiency or by suppressing diseases that would inevitably spread in the confined, dirty, and stressful conditions of intensive livestock operations. But while the likes of Cargill, Purdue and Tyson will claim that the routine use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics is necessary for (sic) maintaining animal health and welfare, and enables them to maximize the production of cheap meat, milk and eggs (and to maximize their profits), we now know that there are some very serious costs.
Scientists from around the world now emphatically suggest that the misuse of antibiotics in intensive livestock farming is one of the key causes for the dramatic rise in life-threatening antibiotic-resistant bacteria over recent years. By allowing intensive livestock farms to routinely expose bacteria to sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics, we are providing the perfect conditions for some very dangerous bacteria to mutate and become resistant to their effects.
As Consumer Reports point out, we are all only human and common slip-ups while handling or cooking meat can sometimes put us all at risk of food poisoning. I suspect that most readers have had food poisoning at some point in their lives. In most cases, the illness is relatively mild (if rather unpleasant) and passes in a few days. But some of the nastier food poisoning bugs such as Salmonella can cause more serious disease and potential complications, particularly for the sick, the elderly or the young. As a result, antibiotics continue to have a vital role to play in treating these more serious cases of food poisoning and other resistant infections.
Yet the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is changing everything. Today, the danger is that if you do happen to contract a multi-resistant bug you may well find the normal antibiotics simply do not work. In some cases, we are running out of options altogether. This is precisely why the UK Government’s Chief Medical Officer recently said that the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria risks a global health catastrophe that ranks alongside the threat of climate change or terrorism.
So is it right that consumers are unwittingly putting themselves and their loved ones at increasing risk of contracting what were previously treatable food poisoning and other bacterial infections simply for the sake of cheaper meat, milk and eggs? Is it acceptable that an accidental spillage in the kitchen refrigerator or the incorrect handling or cooking of meat at a restaurant can now result in a life-threatening – yet entirely preventable – antibiotic-resistant disease? Well, Big Ag seems to think so.
I’ve warned before that the intensive meat industry is actively trying to wash its hands of any responsibility for the emergence of dangerous antibiotic-resistant food poisoning bacteria. Following the infamous 2011 outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella food poisoning, which left one person dead and sickened at least 136 people across 31 states after consuming Cargill’s tainted ground turkey, the company’s hollow public apology contained a chilling caveat. “We go to great lengths to ensure the food we produce is safe and we fully understand that people expect to be able to consume safe food, each serving, every time,” Cargill wrote. But the company then attempted to deflect any responsibility for the outbreak by implicitly blaming the sickened customers involved. “We all need to remember bacteria is everywhere, and we must properly handle and prepare fresh foods wherever they are served.” In other words, if people handled meat properly and cooked it thoroughly, says the industry, it doesn’t matter if there a few antibiotic-resistant pathogens in it.
Since when did safe handling instructions for food become an excuse for the intensive meat industry to not only continue (mis)using precious antibiotics in a way which actively encourages antibiotic-resistance, but also to absolve themselves of any responsibility for subsequent illnesses or deaths that result? If that’s the way Big Ag wants to play it, maybe it’s time to demand that packs of intensively-raised meat are labeled with a public health warning of “This Meat May Contain Life-Threatening Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria”. At least this would allow consumers to decide whether or not eating tainted meat is actually worth the risk?
I want to stress that good food hygiene practices are essential whenever we handle and cook raw meat. But it doesn’t matter how good our hygiene practices are: accidents will inevitably happen. So we all need to do our best to ensure that these inevitable mishaps don’t result in a life-threatening disease. If Big Ag isn’t going to act responsibly and do all it can to minimize the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the first place, then we all need to take matters into our own hands.
The good news is that Consumer Reports found that ground turkey samples from production systems where antibiotics are strictly controlled contained fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria than intensively-raised ground turkey products. To minimize the risk, Consumer Reports advises consumers to not only adopt good food hygiene practices, but to choose meat which is produced according to meaningful standards, such as Animal Welfare Approved (see Consumer Reports’ online guide to what food labels really mean at www.eco-labels.org).
At Animal Welfare Approved, we believe that sick animals may sometimes need a course of antibiotics to treat disease and to alleviate pain or suffering. Our standards permit the targeted use of antibiotics on individual animals when alternative treatments are not suitable or not effective, or if a veterinarian has specifically recommended antibiotic treatment. We know that if antibiotics are used appropriately and judiciously in this way to treat only individual sick animals – and not as a routine sub-therapeutic dose to prevent disease – then the risk of the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is absolutely minimal. The result? Pain and suffering in farm animals is minimized, the risk of disease is minimized, and the efficacy of antibiotics—for both humans and livestock—is protected.
Consumer Reports is calling on the US Food and Drug Administration to phase out the use of antibiotics in livestock production except for the treatment of veterinarian-diagnosed sick animals. At Animal Welfare Approved, we couldn’t agree more, which is why I implore you to contact your representatives and demand they support Congresswoman Louise Slaughter’s introduction of The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), which seeks to limit the overuse of antibiotics in livestock farming so these lifesaving drugs will remain effective in the treatment of human illnesses. In light of the mounting scientific evidence of the link between intensive farming systems and the emergence of antibiotic bacteria, the importance of PAMTA cannot be overstated. We wouldn’t dream of lacing our morning breakfast cereal with low doses of antibiotics just to keep us “healthy,” so why on earth should we allow intensive livestock farming operations to continue such unsustainable, irresponsible, and potentially life-threatening practices?