There's A 25% Chance Your Ground Meat Has A Potentially Fatal Bacteria
Mark Bittman has yet another fascinating column in the New York Times, this time on the prevalence of bacteria in meat. He discusses a study that analyzed 80 brands of beef, pork chicken and turkey from five cities. The study found that 47% of the meat contained the bacteria staphylococcus aureus and that 52% were resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics. One particular line struck us:
So when you go to the supermarket to buy one of these brands of pre-ground meat products, there's a roughly 25% chance you'll consume a potentially fatal bacteria that doesn't respond to commonly prescribed drugs.
Yup, you read that right folks -- based on this study, there is about a one-in-four chance that your ground meat contains a potentially fatal bacteria. Now why is that the case? That's when things get tricky. There has always been problems with giving antibiotics to healthy farm animals, but the practice is widespread nonetheless. In short, antibiotic use on farms can be linked to rising rates of drug-resistant infections.
Now it turns out that the FDA recently decided not to fight against this antibiotic use. So that means that, for the time being, if you use pre-packaged ground beef to make a hamburger, it's probably best to cook the meat through rather than keeping it tastily rare. (Even antibiotic resistant bacteria can be killed by sufficient heat.) Or better yet, grind high-quality meat yourself, or have a reputable butcher grind it right in front of your eyes.
The Opinion Pages Dec. 27, 2011,
Bacteria 1, F.D.A. 0
By MARK BITTMAN
Earlier this month, the Maine-based grocery chain Hannaford issued a ground beef recall after at least 14 people were infected with an antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonella. Chances are this is the first you’ve heard of it. After all, it’s not much compared to the 76 illnesses and one death back in Aug that led Cargill to recall almost 36 million pounds of ground turkey products potentially contaminated with drug-resistant salmonella. The particulars get confusing, but the trend is unmistakable: our meat supply is frequently contaminated with bacteria that can’t readily be treated by antibiotics.
A study earlier this year by a nonprofit research center in Phoenix analyzed 80 brands of beef, pork, chicken and turkey from five cities and found that 47% contained staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria that can cause anything from minor skin infections to pneumonia and sepsis, more technically called systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS), and commonly known as blood poisoning — but no matter what you call it, plenty scary. Of those bacteria, 52% were resistant to at least 3 classes of antibiotics. So when you go to the supermarket to buy one of these brands of pre-ground meat products, there’s a roughly 25% chance you’ll consume a potentially fatal bacteria that doesn’t respond to commonly prescribed drugs.
It’s not like this is happening without a reason; the little germs have plenty of practice fighting the drugs designed to kill them in the industrially raised animals to which antibiotics are routinely fed. And although it’s economical for producers to drug animals prophylactically, there are many strong arguments against the use of those drugs, including their declining efficacy in humans.
Probably you’d agree with the couple of people I described this situation to earlier this week, one of whom said something like, “Ugh, that’s crazy,” and the other simply, “They gotta do something about that!”
The thing is, “they” did. In 1977. That’s when the FDA, aware of the health risks of administering antibiotics to healthy farm animals, proposed to withdraw its prior approval of putting penicillin and tetracycline in animal feed. Per their procedure, the F.D.A. then issued two “notices of opportunity for a hearing,” which were put on hold by Congress until further research could be conducted. On hold is exactly where the F.D.A.’s requests have been since your dad had sideburns. Until last week, when the agency decided to withdraw them.
Not because the situation has gotten better, that’s for sure; the agency is well aware that it’s only gotten worse. A staggering 80% of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to farm animals, mostly, as I said, prophylactically: the low-dose drugs help the animals fatten quickly and presumably help ward off diseases caused by squalid living conditions. The animals become perfect breeding grounds for bacteria to gain resistance to the drugs, and our inadequate testing procedures allow them to make their way into stores and our guts.
The F.D.A. knows all about this; in 2010 the agency issued a draft guidance proposing that big agriculture voluntarily (there’s a non-starter for you) stop the use of low-dose antibiotics in healthy farm animals. “The development of resistance to this important class of drugs,” the F.D.A. asserted, “and the resulting loss of their effectiveness as antimicrobial therapies, poses a serious public health threat.” Good. Nice. But toothless. So why would the F.D.A. — with full knowledge of the threat and a high-profile lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council impelling them to finally address it — decide not to act? In its announcement last week, the agency said that its “efforts will focus on promoting voluntary reform and the judicious use of antimicrobials in the interest of best using the agency’s overall resources to protect the public health.” What this means is that the F.D.A. has neither the budget nor the political support to mandate regulation.
RED MEAT HAS MANY CHEMICALS !!
That’s true: the F.D.A. is consistently under-financed and increasingly unable to do its job, which is largely to protect the public health. (It’s surprising that Congress recently increased the F.D.A.’s budget by an inadequate but better-than-nothing 3%. Most of that money is for implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act, a critical and long-overdue piece of legislation.)
Here’s the nut: The F.D.A. has no money to spare, but the corporations that control the food industry have all they need, along with the political power it buys. That’s why we can say this without equivocation: public health, the quality of our food, and animal welfare are all sacrificed to the profits that can be made by raising animals in factories. Plying “healthy” farm animals (the quotation marks because how healthy, after all, can battery chickens be?) with antibiotics — a practice the EU banned in 2006 — is as much a part of the American food system as childhood obesity and commodity corn. Animals move from farm to refrigerator case in record time; banning prophylactic drugs would slow this process down, and with it the meat industry’s rate of profit. Lawmakers beholden to corporate money are not about to let that happen, at least not without a fight.
 Economical, that is, as long as you don’t count the cost of human lives and suffering or the actual dollars it costs to treat the disease. Once that’s included, the cost to the U.S. healthcare system of treating such antibiotic-resistant infections in humans is estimated to be between $16 billion and $26 billion per year. But there’s no reason for animal producers to care about that unless they’re required to — or exhibit unusual levels of altruism.
 As are all voluntary guidelines; see my column of two weeks ago.
 It’s worth noting that the F.D.A. is responsible for regulating antibiotics, but the department of agriculture (USDA) oversees the actual animals that receive them. Why it’s too much to ask for a single agency overseeing the production and health of animals is beyond me, but later for that.
An earlier version of this article misidentified The Natural Resources Defense Council as The National Resources Defense Council; this has been corrected.