- Antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in raw meat
- A microbiologist notes the levels are low
- More than 31 million pounds of antibiotics are sold for animal use
When you shop for turkey burgers for dinner tonight, you may be buying more than meat.
A recently released report from Food and Drug Administration found that of all the raw ground turkey tested, 81% was contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Also, according to the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, or NARMS, Retail Meat Annual Report, ground turkey wasn't the only problem. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria were found in some 69% of pork chops, 55% of ground beef and 39% of chicken.
Of the chicken tested, 53% was tainted with an antibiotic-resistant form of E.coli, the report said.
Certain strains of E.coli can cause urinary tract infections, pneumonia and other illnesses. Antibiotic resistance means if you were to become ill, doctors would have fewer drug options to treat you.
Antibiotics are used in livestock to prevent disease, but they are also used as a protectant and to help growth. Some 29.9 million pounds of antibiotics were sold in 2011 for meat and poultry production, compared with the 7.7 million sold for human use, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, and that number has been on the rise.
"Antibiotic use in animals is out of hand," said Dr. Gail Hansen, a veterinarian and senior officer for the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, a project aimed at phasing out overuse of antibiotics in food production.
"We feed antibiotics to sick animals, which is completely appropriate, but we also put antibiotics in their feed and in their water to help them grow faster and to compensate for unhygienic conditions. If you have to keep the animals healthy with drugs, I would argue you need to re-examine the system. You don't take antibiotics preventively when you go out into the world."
Undurraga is particularly concerned about the NARMS findings because it means the consumption of meat is adding to what the director-general of the World Health Organization, Dr. Margaret Chan, last year called a "post-antibiotic era" in which antibiotics will no longer work to fight disease because too many bacteria have developed resistance to it.
"While we are always concerned when we see antimicrobial resistance, we believe the EWG report oversimplifies the NARMS data," FDA spokesman Jalil Isa said in an e-mail, adding the report "does not take into account the differences in the public health importance of different bacteria and antibiotics."
The Environmental Working Group would like the FDA to regulate antibiotic use in meat better. Currently, the FDA only offers suggested guidelines, according to the group.
"We need to end usage for growth promotion and feed efficiency and think about what we are doing for the long term," Undurraga said. "We also need more data."
However, Isa said, that the "FDA believes that these drugs are important for the prevention, control and treatment of disease in animals. It is the nonjudicious use -- for growth promotion and feed efficiency -- that concerns FDA."
The agency recommends that use of "medically important antimicrobial drugs" in food-producing animals be restricted to situations where they are necessary to ensure animal health, and used under veterinary supervision, Isa said.
Working with the industry in a "collaborative approach is the quickest way to achieve the greatest degree of public health protection, and it does not prevent FDA from issuing regulations in the future, if the agency finds it necessary."
Currently, the law tracks only how many antibiotics are sold; it does not mandate data collection on how many animals are given the drugs or how much. Without that information, it is hard to know where antibiotics are used.
The American Meat Institute noted in a statement that bacteria on meat and poultry products are declining.
"The industry's shift away from the use of antibiotics for growth promotion at the request of the (FDA) last year should provide further reassurance that we are committed to meeting government and customer expectations and to producing meat and poultry products that are as safe as we can make them," said spokeswoman Janet Riley.
The American Health Institute, the association that represents large agriculture and pharmaceutical industries, supports the NARMS monitoring program as "it provides an important early warning system on the potential for the emergence of antibiotic resistance bacteria," said Ron Phillips, vice president for legislative and public affairs, in an e-mail.
"NARMS is comprised of three arms that track resistant bacteria in humans, animals and retail meat. Based on historic data, there have been no discernible trends or patterns found between antibiotic resistance and the numbers reported in each group."
Mike Doyle, a microbiologist with the University of Georgia and the director for the university's Center for Food Safety, said, "We need to put these tests in perspective. It's no surprise that you would find salmonella and Campylobacter and E. coli, but if you look at the numbers, these are low levels and in the case of salmonella, for instance, we are seeing a decrease in multidrug-resistant strains in humans."
Doyle said farmers should use fewer antibiotics with their livestock, which he believes has happened over the past few years. "I predict within the next five years, the concept of using antibiotics as a prophylactic with animals is not going to continue."
Federal safety guidelines suggest handling meat with care. Thorough cooking can kill bacteria, and washing your hands before and after touching meat can prevent the spread of disease.
"My husband teases me that I'm too vigilant when I buy turkey and put it in a plastic bag and put it on the bottom shelf of the grocery cart, away from everything else," Undurraga said.
But, she noted, studies have shown a risk factor for salmonella in children riding in shopping carts near raw meat or poultry. "I think you can't be too careful," she said.