How Much Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Is In Your Meat? The Answer Is Complicated

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According to a new analysis of data from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), up to 80 percent of raw meat sold in US grocery stores contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria from species that can cause food poisoning. Is this really the case?

Commercially raised animals have been fed staggering amounts of antibiotics for decades, driving the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and putting these potentially dangerous pathogens right on our dinner plates. One would think that the increasing outcry from the scientific community – and concerned public – would have led to recent improvement, yet the Environmental Working Group (ERG)'s new examination of the FDA’s 2015 National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) report suggests that the situation is not improving. 

Back in 2013, the EWG performed a similar deep dive on the agency’s 2011 NARMS data. They calculated that 81 percent of ground turkey and 55 percent of ground beef samples taken from markets across the country tested positive for antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella and Campylobacter, whereas over 50 percent of chicken contained resistant Escherichia coli.

After the review was published, the FDA publicly responded, making some fair points in their argument that the EWG had oversimplified the data.

“EWG’s evaluation of the NARMS findings does not take into account important differences between various forms of bacteria and antibiotics,” the agency said. “The EWG report cites some pathogens that don’t lead to food-borne illnesses or focuses on resistance to antibiotics that are not commonly used to treat sick people. Furthermore, it is alarmist to imply that pathogens resistant to one, or even a few, antimicrobials should be called ‘superbugs’ – if these same bacteria are still treatable by other commonly used antibiotics.”

It’s true that the NARMS statistics are difficult to decipher due to the way the data is presented, forcing the EWG to do some number crunching of their own in order to present easily digestible percentages of how many samples from each type of meat harbored resistant microbes. And while we have no intention of downplaying the danger of acquired bacterial resistance and the dire necessity of curbing overuse of antimicrobial drugs both in livestock and humans, it is also important to avoid cherry-picking information when writing to the public.

Their interpretation of the 2015 report, which was released in 2017, splashily declares that 73 percent of strains of Salmonella cultured from ground turkey samples collected in 2014 were resistant to at least one antibiotic, but does not mention that the proportion dropped to 57 percent the following year. The percentage of resistant Salmonella found in retail chicken meat remained steadier: 59 percent in 2014 and 57 percent in 2015.

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