Superbugs in the Meat Supply

A large percentage of meat products sold in the U.S. contain bacteria—such as salmonella and E. coli—that is resistant to antibiotics, according to a new government report. The National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, a joint effort between the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, released the report on antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” in the meat supply in February.

According to the report, which looked at ground turkey, chicken portions, pork chops and ground beef collected from supermarkets, more than half of the meat samples contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Specifically, bacteria was found in 81% of ground turkey, 69% of pork chops, 55% of ground beef and 39% of chicken breasts, wings and thighs.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) called attention to the report, which went all but unnoticed when it was first released. Included in their coverage is a pledge for site visitors to sign promising to go meatless one day per week, an action with positive health and environmental benefits. The group notes that these superbugs can cause serious illness. Salmonella and campylobacter together cause 3.6 million cases of food poisoning each year, while E. coli, which was found in chicken samples, causes diarrhea, urinary tract infections and pneumonia.

The superbugs have come to taint increasing quantities of American meat supplies as a result of antibiotic misuse in factory farms. As EWG writes: “Industrial livestock producers routinely dose their animals with pharmaceuticals, mostly administered with limited veterinary oversight and frequently without prescriptions, to encourage faster growth or prevent infection in crowded, stressful and often unsanitary living conditions.”

Almost 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in animal agriculture, according to the Department of Agriculture. Increased exposure to antibiotics in the food supply is contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans, too. As consumer awareness and concern has grown, supermarkets have begun responding with antibiotic-free meat.