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A new study by the Environmental Working Group has found that close to 50 percent of supermarket meat products in the US are tainted with so-called superbugs—strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These bacteria are not only responsible for food-borne illnesses (such as E. coli) and other infections, but they are also tied to the spread of resistance to antibiotics in humans. The reason for this incredibly high presence of antibiotic resistant bacteria in meat? It has something to do with the 30 million pounds of antibiotics sold for use in US livestock in 2011 alone.
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The report’s principal author, EWG nutritionist Dawn Undurraga explained: “Consumers should be very concerned that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are now common in the meat aisles of most American supermarkets.” And significantly more common among some meats than others. 81 percent of raw ground turkey was found to contain the superbugs, in contrast with raw chicken, which featured the relatively low rate of 39 percent. Hovering in the middle were raw pork chops (69 percent), and raw ground beef (55 percent).
So what does that mean in terms of risks to humans? Undurraga continues “These organisms can cause foodborne illnesses and other infections,” such as E. coli, which causes diarrhea, urinary tract infections and pneumonia. “Worse, they spread antibiotic-resistance, which threatens to bring on a post-antibiotic era where important medicines critical to treating people could become ineffective.” Additionally, as LA Weekly highlights, potentially fatal bacteria are developing, and passing from animals to humans: “methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus CC398, also known as pig MRSA, a strain of the potentially deadly antibiotic-resistant bacterium, has jumped from food animals to humans”
The pharmaceutical industry makes a huge profit from the use of antibiotics in farm animals—that 30 million pounds sold in 2011, along with other drugs used on animals to be slaughtered for meat—represents as much as 80 percent of all pharmaceuticals sold in the US. Many farms that raise animals for meat are heavily dependent on the drugs too—cramped, unsanitary and often inhumane conditions create an environment that is ripe for the spread of infections such as pig MRSA.
Switching to a meat free diet will dramatically reduce ones exposure to these superbugs, but short of that, the EWG recommends “that consumers assume that all meat is contaminated with disease-causing bacteria,” and try to avoid it by opting for “organic and meat raised without unnecessary antibiotics when you can. They have fewer superbugs, in part because these livestock producers rely on preventive medicine, good sanitation and stress reduction–not antibiotics–to keep animals healthy.”
Via LA Weekly