You’ve got a nearly 9 in 10 chance of bringing bacteria-riddled meat home with you.
A small three-ounce serving of meat daily can be good for you, loading you up with iron and healthy protein. But if you buy meat at your local grocery store, there’s an 87 percent chance that it’s exposing you to something decidedly unhealthy: antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
For a new report, dietitians from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a consumer-advocacy group that focuses on health and environmental issues, analyzed data from a little-known government program called the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, which is intended to track foodborne diseases. Each year, the program’s researchers buy samples of meat from supermarkets nationwide and test them for bacterial residues.
“We were pretty shocked,” says Dawn Underraga, RD, nutritionist and lead author of the report. And not just by the levels of bacteria, she says, but also by the number of those bacteria that are antibiotic resistant, that is, that are no longer susceptible to many of the antibiotics commonly used to treat people when they get sick.
Sixty-nine and 55 percent of pork and beef samples, respectively, tested positive for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but turkey and chicken pose much greater problems, as far as these “superbugs” are concerned. By far the most contaminated meat was turkey: 81 percent of turkey samples tested positive for antibiotic-resistant microbes, while just 39 percent of chicken samples did.
However, it’s the level of antibiotic resistance, and the rate at which resistance is climbing, the report concludes, that’s most concerning. Rates of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella, which causes acute illness and can lead to chronic arthritis, have increased from 48 percent in 2002 to 76 percent in 2011. Amounts of “superbug Salmonella” found on turkey have jumped from 62 to 78 percent during that same time period.
Another super-bacterium, campylobacter, can be even more damaging. Campylobacter is the most common cause of diarrheal disease in the U.S. and, left untreated, it can trigger Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease that can result in paralysis. Yet, 100 percent of the campylobacter found on turkey was resistant to antibiotics. “Is that the level of food safety we’re aiming for?” Underraga says.
EWG, along with the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, says the problem can be directly attributed to the heavy use of antibiotics in factory farms. Eighty percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to animals, either directly or as feed additives, to help the animals grow faster and survive the unsanitary conditions of concentrated feedlots. “These antibiotics are available to farmers over the counter and without a prescription,” Underraga says. “It’s mind-boggling that we have these incredibly smart doctors who are working hard to preserve antibiotics for only the most necessary medical uses, yet anyone can pick up animal feed with antibiotics in it.”
The Food and Drug Administration hasn’t taken many substantial steps to control the rampant overuse of antibiotics in animal production, so it’s that likely levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat will continue to increase. Here’s how to keep them out of your kitchen.
• Assume all meat is contaminated. And follow basic food-safety steps: Store meat on the lowest rack in the refrigerator, away from fresh produce. Thaw in the fridge. Use separate cutting boards for meat and produce. Don’t wash meat, as doing so will spread bacteria. Use a food thermometer. You can download these tips at ewg.org/antibioticswalletguide and paste them on your fridge to remind you.
• Buy organic. Although this report didn’t compare organic and conventional meats, previous studies have shown that organic cuts of meat harbor significantly less antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Nonetheless, cook organic meats thoroughly to kill the bacteria raw organic meats do have.
• Eat more lentils. Another EWG report focusing on the environmental impacts of meat production found that lentils are the treehuggers of the protein world. A single cup of cooked lentils provides about 17 grams of protein, compared to roughly 25 for meat (depending on cut), and they produce a fraction of the greenhouse gases emitted by cattle. Plus, they’re naturally antibiotic free!