Meat with a side of Drug Resistant Bacteria

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Last month, the FDA released the 10th National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System Retail Meat Annual Report. The results showed, among other things, that 81% of ground turkey, 69% of pork chops, 55% of ground beef, and 39% of chicken sold in grocery stores contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Among the super bugs found were salmonella, Enterococcus faecalis, campylobacter, and E. coli. The normal strands of these viruses are responsible for almost 3.6 million cases of food poisoning each year. In the past, if you became ill with one of these stands of bacteria, you would simply obtain a prescription of antibiotics from your doctor and would recover relatively quickly. Now these bacteria are becoming drug resistant.

 Bacterial_infectionsBacteria are single-celled organisms that can be found everywhere, including inside our bodies. Antibiotics are drugs that fight infection caused by bacteria. Bacteria-caused infections include pneumonia, and ear, eye , and urinary tract infections. Bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics through the process of natural selection — in other words “survival of the fittest.” When a bacteria population is exposed to antibiotics, there may be a few cells with the ability to fend off the antimicrobial agent. These resistant cells survive and reproduce. This results in more and more bacteria that are not easily treatable. When bacteria becomes resistant to antibiotics,  treating infections becomes difficult and even impossible, resulting in serious illness and death.

The Centers for Disease Control calls antibiotic resistance “one of the world’s most pressing public health problems.” The widespread overuse of antibiotics is the cause of drug resistant bacteria. According to health experts, the agriculture sector is a significant contributor to the creation of drug resistant superbugs. Nearly 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States are used on food-producing animals, most of which were not even sick. In 2011, healthy livestock were fed 30 million pounds of antibiotics, while sick people were treated with only 7.7 million pounds. While the number of antibiotics given to people has remained steady over the last 10 years, it has skyrocketed for livestock.

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Beginning in the 1970’s, the FDA concluded that the common agriculture practice of giving otherwise healthy livestock antibiotics had resulted in the emergence of superbugs. Just last year, the agency issued recommended guidance to the industry suggesting that farmers limit the use of antibiotics to those situations where it is necessary to insure animal health. However, the agency stopped short of creating regulations or imposing mandatory standards for the use of antibiotics in farm animals.    

The Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the FDA twice to prohibit the use of herdwide use of certain antibiotics in chicken, swine, and beef cattle. It took several years and lawsuits, but the FDA finally responded and denied the petition. The FDA explained that it was too time consuming to evaluate the safety of all drugs used in standard agricultural practice. Last year a federal district court determined that the FDA’s denial of the petition was arbitrary and capricious. The court held that the FDA had to review the numerous scientific studies detailing the risks of antibiotic resistance from using non-therapeutic drugs in food-producing animals. Not surprisingly, the FDA is appealing the decision.

Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies continue to reap the financial benefit of antibiotic use in farm animals. Farmers can continue to feed livestock large amounts of antibiotics to promote growth and to counteract exceedingly poor living conditions. Once again, the brunt of the consequences fall on the consumer, who unknowingly purchases and consumes a potentially deadly superbug.  So next time you purchase meat at your local grocery store, think about the consequences of what you are eating.

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