Protect Yourself From Superbugs in Meat

By Heather White, Executive Director at Environmental Working Group, a national environmental health and consumer advocacy organization

Posted on | By Heather White

If you buy meat at the grocery store, you may be exposing yourself and your family to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, sometimes called “superbugs.” The use of antibiotics on factory farms, in order to bring animals to slaughter faster or to make up for crowded conditions on feed lots, is one of the reasons why antibiotic resistance is on the rise.

In April, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a report analyzing antibiotic resistance of bacteria detected in supermarket meat. We surfaced data found in the annual report of the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, a federal food safety effort run by the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and US Department of Agriculture.

This government report consists of large amounts of raw data; EWG crunched the numbers to make the data accessible to busy consumers. We wanted to show you what you deserve to know – that the increasing presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria on meat is a serious problem for public health.

The government data showed that one antibiotic-resistant strain of a germ called Enterococcus faecalis, normally found in human and animal intestines, was widespread on a wide variety of meats. High percentages of store-bought meat tested positive for this antibiotic-resistant bacterium, including 81% of ground turkey, 69% of pork chops, 55% of ground beef and 39%of chicken breasts, wings or thighs. Scientists use the presence of these particular bacteria as a gauge of meat contamination. Finding it means that: 1) The meat likely came into contact with fecal matter; and 2) There’s a high likelihood that other antibiotic-resistant bacteria are on the meat as well. All in all, 87% of all the meat examined by the government researchers tested positive for these indicator bacteria – in both normal and antibiotic-resistant forms.

Our report highlighted more government data that might make you think twice at the supermarket. Among the findings: Poultry showed significant rates of contamination by antibiotic-resistant salmonella and Campylobacter. These two germs are responsible for nearly 3.6 million cases of food poisoning a year. Federal scientists regularly examine poultry and find salmonella resistant to six or more classes of antimicrobials. The percentage of antibiotic-resistant salmonella in chicken right now is at a nine-year high, as is the percentage of Campylobacter resistant to two or more classes of antibiotics.

The FDA has issued a statement on the EWG’s report, stating that it “oversimplifies the … data and provides misleading conclusions.” You can read the full response here. The FDA also suggested that it was “inaccurate and alarmist to define bacteria resistant to one, or even a few, antimicrobials as ‘superbugs'" because it can still be treated with other antibiotics – for now.

The FDA glossed over the reality that scientists know well: Antibiotic-resistance traits can spread as genes pass freely from one microbe to another. Microbes that have adapted to defeat antibiotics designed to kill them can share this ability – and create more superbugs.

The FDA’s response stressed that for at least one antibiotic drug, resistance to Campylobacter has not increased since 2005. The agency seems to be trying to say, "Whatever you do, don’t be alarmed." But people are alarmed, and rightly so. If the effectiveness of existing antibiotics erodes to the point that they don’t work when people need them to fight infections, routine illnesses may suddenly spiral into medical crises.

At EWG, we believe that when a bacterium is resistant to one or more antibiotics, that’s superbug enough. We believe the FDA needs to act now to protect us from antibiotic misuse on factory farms. Nearly 80% of the antibiotics marketed in the US is used in livestock. A voluntary program that urges factory farms to stop this practice won’t work fast enough to safeguard critical antibiotics.

We need bold, decisive government action to ensure that important antibiotic medicines work for us and our children and grandchildren. And we need federal food and farm policy that will help farmers reduce their use of unnecessary antibiotics. Americans want more information about their food, not less.

In the meantime, you can take action. Here are simple steps you can take to avoid antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat:

  • Look for meats carrying credible labels that attest that the animals were raised antibiotic-free or organic. They have fewer superbugs. One reason: The animals were not fed unnecessary antibiotics. The most reliable labels are USDA-certified organic, animal welfare approved, certified humane and global animal partnership.
  • Buy from farmers who use antibiotics prudently. Some sell locally and others online.
  • Ask your butcher or local farmer how the meat was raised. Ask your store manager to carry meat raised without unnecessary antibiotics. 

Safe kitchen practices include:

  • Bag your meat before it goes into the shopping cart. Keep raw meat away from children and raw produce. Be especially careful around ground meats; they are often more contaminated than whole cuts of meat.
  • Chill your meat promptly at 40°F or below. Put your meat in the lowest drawer in the fridge to avoid cross-contamination with other food items. Use a separate cutting board for meat. 
  • Don’t wash your meat. Splashes often spread bacteria. Thaw meat in the fridge or cold water, never on the counter.
  • Use a meat thermometer to make sure you cook the meat at the right temperature.

Take a look at EWG’s online tip sheet to find out more ways you can reduce your exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat.

Article written by Heather White
Executive Director at Environmental Working Group, a national environmental health and consumer advocacy organization