Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria Threatening Poultry—And Us?

Dear EarthTalk: How serious is the threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria in chicken and other poultry?

—Dana Wilke, Chicago, IL

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, 70 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to pigs, cattle and poultry for the purposes of sanitation and growth promotion. Meanwhile, humans rely on many of these same antibiotics as medicines to control various bacterial infections. Bacteria in poultry and other livestock exposed over and over to these antibiotics develop increased resistance. The result can be that when people become infected by these same bacteria—such as Campylobacter or Salmonella, the two most common causes of food poisoning in the U.S.—the antibiotics they normally rely on can be useless.

The Keep Antibiotics Working (KAW) campaign, an association of health, consumer protection, environmental and animal welfare organizations, says that antibiotic resistance is “reaching crisis proportions, resulting in infections that are difficult, or impossible, to treat.” The campaign asserts: “Overuse and misuse of antibiotics greatly accelerates the proliferation of resistant bacteria.” KAW’s primary goal is to end the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture.

A recent study published in Consumer Reports found that 49 percent of brand name whole broiler chickens purchased in food stores in 25 U.S. cities were contaminated with Campylobacter and/or Salmonella bacteria. According to KAW, those two strains of bacteria alone cause 3.3 million illnesses and 650 deaths every year. The study also found that 90 percent of the Campylobacter and 34 percent of the Salmonella tested were resistant to at least one antibiotic.

Another recent study, conducted by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) and the Sierra Club, found that thousands of people in the Minneapolis area were ingesting bacteria resistant to important antibiotic medicines like Cipro, Synercid and Tetracycline. “As bacteria on food get more and more resistant to the antibiotics doctors rely on for treating infections, it puts patients” lives at risk. This study confirms that supermarket chicken
can be an important source of drug-resistant infections,” says IATP”s David Wallinga M.D. “We can’t afford to play Russian Roulette with our existing antibiotics because they are rapidly losing effectiveness,” he concludes.

CONTACTS: Union of Concerned Scientists, (617) 547-5552, http://www.ucsusa.org; Keep Antibiotics Working, (202) 572-3250, http://www.keepantibioticsworking.com; Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, (612) 870-0453, http://www.iatp.org; Sierra Club, (415) 977-5500, http://www.sierraclub.org.