Antibiotic resistance is a topic I like to follow because it has been implicated as a public health issue that could have catastrophic results. When bacteria are resistant to antibiotics, it becomes increasingly more difficult to kill them. First one antibiotic won’t work, then two, then most antibiotics don’t work—you can see where this leads.

There are a number of contributing factors to the development of antibiotic resistance, two in particular:

  • Over prescription of antibiotics for conditions that don’t require antibiotics
  • Widespread unnecessary use of antibiotics in the raising of animals for meat

Did you know that antibiotics are routinely given to animals because the animals grow fatter on antibiotics? This discovery was made quite by accident when poultry farmers discovered that chickens given antibiotics for infections actually grew larger than their non-medicated feathered friends. Today, it is common practice to add antibiotics to the water given to livestock. (Ever wondered why conventional chicken is so much bigger than organic chicken, or chicken not raised with antibiotics? I think we have our explanation.)

A recent report by the Environmental Working Group has shed some light on this important topic. They reported the results of recent government tests that detected antibiotic-resistant bacteria in:

  • 81% of ground turkey
  • 69% of pork chops
  • 55% of ground beef
  • 39% of chicken breasts, wings, and thighs

The antibiotic-resistant bacteria (also known as superbugs) they found included E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter jejuni, Yersinia enterocolitica, Staphylococcus aureus, and Enterococcus faecium. “EWG’s research has determined that the risk of bringing a superbug into a kitchen varies by type of meat and how it was raised. Some types of meats are more contaminated than others. The overall picture is disturbing,” stated the report.

What was particularly disturbing about the news is that the problem is getting worse. Antibiotic-resistant Salmonella and Campylobacter levels are rising. For example, between 2002 and 2011, the amount of antibiotic-resistant salmonella bacteria on raw chicken increased from 48% to 78%. (That’s right—78% of raw chicken was found to harbor not only salmonella bacteria, but antibiotic-resistant salmonella bacteria.)

Over 40 years ago the FDA came to the conclusion that unnecessary antibiotic use for livestock triggered the development of superbugs. And yet here we are, still administering antibiotics to our livestock all in the name of profit. (Remember, we pay for meat by the ounce.)

I blogged on this topic in 2011, and I’ll continue to do so. More people need to be aware of this. Unfortunately, most people have no idea. Perhaps a recent Consumer Reports investigation will also help spread the news. They did a study of their own on ground turkey. Check out Environmental Working Group’s Tips for Meat Eaters guide for some how-to support.

While we’re on the topic, another recent study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that chicken raised with arsenic-based drugs had higher levels of inorganic arsenic, which is a known carcinogen. Again, another reason to buy organic chicken—levels of inorganic arsenic were four times higher in conventionally-raised chicken that had been treated with arsenic-containing drugs than in organic chicken.

Fortunately, Pfizer voluntarily removed the main arsenic-containing drug, roxarsone, from the US market in 2011 (coincidentally right after this study was done). “The suspension of roxarsone sales is a good thing in the short term, but it isn’t a real solution. Hopefully this study will persuade FDA to ban the drug and permanently keep it off the market,” stated lead author Keeve Nachman, PhD. Don’t hold your breath, Nachman.

In the meantime, follow EWG’s advice on meat. And be sure to never cross contaminate raw meat with raw fruits and vegetables. Use separate utensils and cutting boards and wash your hands frequently.