The Science has spoken. Nearly half of the meat and poultry (47 percent) sold in U.S. grocery stores is contaminated with staphylococcus aureus (“Staph”), a bacteria linked to a wide range of human diseases, and this bacteria is resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics in more than half (52 percent) of contaminated samples, according to a nationwide study by the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) published this week in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.
Researchers collected and analyzed 136 samples–covering 80 brands–of beef, chicken, pork and turkey from 26 retail grocery stores in five U.S. cities: Los Angeles, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Flagstaff and Washington, D.C.. DNA testing suggested that the food animals themselves were the major source of contamination. The study was funded through a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts as part of The Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming.
“The fact that drug-resistant S. aureus was so prevalent, and likely came from the food animals themselves, is troubling, and demands attention to how antibiotics are used in food-animal production today,” said Lance B. Price, Ph.D., senior author of the study and Director of TGen’s Center for Food Microbiology and Environmental Health [emphasis added].
Up to 70 percent of all antibiotics produced in the United States are used for ‘non-therapeutic’ purposes in industrial food animal production, according to The Union of Concerned Scientists, which defines ‘non-therapeutic’ as the use of antibiotics in the absence of diagnosed disease.
So there you have it. In the words of a reputable scientist, for a change, and not from the usual anti-CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operations) ranks or other organic-food nuts: stuffing food animals with antibiotics is a bad idea.
At the risk of clarifying the obvious, industrial animal farms that feed the poor creatures food that Nature never intended for them (such as GM corn), and with antibiotics designed to mitigate the side-effects of such inappropriate food and of appalling living conditions, are breeding mutant super-bacteria in the food chain. That includes us, human beings.
The report underlines that Staph should be killed with proper cooking. However, it may still pose a risk to consumers through improper food handling and cross-contamination in the kitchen. Staph can cause a range of illnesses from minor skin infections to life-threatening diseases, such as pneumonia, endocarditis and sepsis. What is a doctor to do when antibiotic treatments have no impact on her patient’s condition?
“The emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria–including Staph–remains a major challenge in clinical medicine,” said Paul S. Keim, Ph.D., Director of TGen’s Pathogen Genomics Division and Director of the Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics at Northern Arizona University (NAU).
Here is the silver lining of this appalling state of affair: how about considering the damning conclusion of the report as an extra nail in the coffin of the meat industry? Not that the government is likely to take any significant action in a timely manner (after all, Staph is not among the four types of drug-resistant bacteria that the USDA routinely surveys retail meat and poultry for).
To be sure, consumers are not going to desert fast-food joints and the innumerable sources of cheap meat en masse overnight. However, each of us retains the power to “vote” with our dollars. Let’s boycott the damn food and be loud about it! Equipped with the new piece of evidence offered by TGen, let’s educate and embarrass restaurant and supermarket managers into reevaluating how they source their meat. Now, they surely would want to avoid losing business or being subjected to litigation, now would they?
For those of us who are not quite ready for radical action, quiet vegetarianism is an obvious option. And if we’re not prepared to forego meat, the good news is that healthy alternatives do exist: at a minimum, check the labels for the “no antibiotics” seal; even better, favor “organic” (which officially guarantees the absence of antibiotics), or even “pasture-raised” meat. Sure, it is more expensive. Which is as it should be: the price premium factors in the extra-cost of farming practices that leave planet and people unharmed. And truly, we don’t need as much meat as we’ve become accustomed to consuming anyway.