Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem—one that is greatly intensified by the overuse of antibiotics in factory farms, where producers often give animals heavy doses of the drugs with limited oversight. It shouldn’t come as too much of a shock, then, that a significant portion of supermarket meat contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
In a new report, the Environmental Working Group examines the FDA’s recent findings that supercharged versions of salmonella and Campylobacter can be found in much of the meat at your local grocery store. The FDA discovered that in 2011, 81% of ground turkey, 69% of pork chops, 55% of ground beef, and 39% of chicken wings, breasts, and thighs contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Both Salmonella and Campylobacter jejuni (found in 26% of raw chicken pieces) can cause diarrhea. More rarely, Salmonella causes arthritis and Campylobacter jejuni triggers Guillain-Barré syndrome, which leads to paralysis.
Overall, the FDA found that 87% of all store-bought meat is contaminated with bacteria—both regular and superbug versions. This doesn’t mean that you should never eat meat again. Cook your food well enough and you shouldn’t have a problem. If that wasn’t the case, nearly all meat-eaters would be dealing with constant diarrhea.
Nonetheless, this is bad news for the people who do get infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria from their lunchtime turkey sandwich. The EWG notes:
In the past, people who became ill because of contact with harmful microbes on raw meat usually recovered quickly when treated with antibiotics. But today, the chances are increasing that a person can suffer serious illness, complications or death because of a bacterial infection that doctors must struggle to control.
The proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria poses special dangers to young children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.
If you want to decrease your chances of contracting an illness from superbug-laden meat, avoid the factory-farmed stuff and opt for organic products (or meat raised without antibiotics). For a full list of legitimate labels for antibiotic-free meat, look here.
On a larger scale, the issue can only be addressed if factory farms stop overusing antibiotics—something that will probably only happen if the FDA steps in with stringent regulations. And it wouldn’t hurt if people stopped using antibiotics every time they come down with a minor illness, either.