Shocking rates of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in supermarket meats

A recent study by NARMS finds that over half of some meats contain superbugs. Photo: by maizers

WASHINGTON, April 18, 2013 – A recent study by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) reveals shocking rates of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in U.S. supermarket meats. An alarming 81% of ground turkey and well over half of ground beef and pork chops tested contained some form of these “superbugs.” 

Established in 1996 to track antibiotic resistance in foodborne bacteria, NARMS is a joint public health surveillance project of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

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NARMS analyzed 480 samples each of ground beef, ground turkey, pork chops, and chicken breasts, wings and thighs, purchased in supermarkets around the country in 2011. Federal researches tested the samples for antibiotic-resistant salmonella, campylobacter, E. coli, and Enterococcus.

The study found antibiotic-resistant bacteria in 55% of ground beef, 81% of ground turkey, 69% of pork chops, and 39% of chicken breast, wings or thighs. Perhaps just as disturbing, the study also found that 87% of all the meat collected by federal scientists was contaminated with both normal and antibiotic-resistant Enterococcus bacteria, “evidence that most of this meat likely came in contact with fecal matter at some point.”

Particularly alarming is the rapidly growing percentage of bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics. For example, the proportion of antibiotic-resistant salmonella—blamed for over 400 deaths and 23,000 hospitalizations per year— in chicken has skyrocketed from 48% in 2002 to 74% in 2011. Similarly, antibiotic-resistant campylobacter, responsible for over 124 yearly deaths and 2.4 million cases of foodborne illness, was found in 26% of the chicken samples, 58% of these being resistant to at least one antibiotic and 14% being resistant to several antibiotics. 

The NARMS study was initially published on February 5, 2013. However, the alarming findings were not widely publicized until the Environmental Working Group published “Superbugs Invade American Supermarkets” earlier this week. 

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To blame for the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat is the overuse and abuse of antibiotics by the meat industry. While antibiotics are often used to treat bacterial infections in livestock, industrial farms—raising 8.9 billion animals per year –feed otherwise healthy animals antibiotics to make them gain weight faster at a lower cost and to compensate for overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.

Even though the FDA recommended last year that antibiotics in farm animals “should be limited to those uses that are considered necessary for assuring animal health,” and criticized the use of antibiotics with the sole purpose of fattening an animal as “injudicious,” this guidance is not mandatory and farmers are free to do as they like.

According to the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, as the market for antibiotics to treat sick people has remained flat since 2001, pharmaceutical companies have strong financial incentives to sell increasing amounts of their products to the meat and poultry industry. Antibiotics for use on domestic food-producing animals now accounts for over 80% of the antibiotics market in the U.S. According to the FDA and the Animal Health Institute, almost 30 million pounds of antibiotics were used on livestock food animals in 2011, which is up 22% over 2005.

Studies have found that when an otherwise healthy animal is fed antibiotics, over time weaker bacteria are eliminated, allowing for the dominance of strains that can withstand the drugs.  Bacteria that are resistant to one type of antibiotic can often tolerate others and pass this trait on to their offspring and other microbes.

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Several medical specialists and public health officials in the U.S. and Europe have warned that consuming meat with antibiotics is contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans, as world health authorities are registering alarming levels of antibiotic resistance among the world’s population. 

Not everyone is convinced by EWG’s interpretation of the NARMS study, however. “We believe the EWG report oversimplifies the NARMS data,” said Jalil Isa, FDA press officer.  “EWG’s evaluation of the NARMS findings does not take into account the differences in the public health important differences in different bacteria and antibiotics. 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.”

Similarly, professor of veterinary science Randall Singer at the University of Minnesota criticized the limited number of samples taken by federal investigators. Professor Singer also told The New York Times that “the No. 1 misunderstanding about antibiotics in animal agriculture is that it is not understood well enough that antibiotics are used to keep animals healthy, period.”

Other veterinarians and academics with the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, financed in part by veterinary pharmaceutical companies, and the International Food Information Council have come out to criticize the study as “misleading.”  A spokeswoman for the national Chicken Council responded to the NARMS study by stating that  “the bottom line for consumers is that all chicken is safe to consume when properly handled and cooked.”

Health experts urge consumers to act as if all meat is contaminated. This means cooking all meats thoroughly and using safe and sanitary cooking and preparations methods.  To minimize consumption and exposure to superbugs in meat, consumers can buy meats labeled certified organic of antibiotic free, buy from known local farmers, and ask their butcher questions about how the meat is raised. 

At the grocery store, customers should also bag raw meat before putting it in their grocery cart. At home, raw meats should be stored in the lowest rack in the refrigerator and should be processed on a separate cutting board. A food thermometer should always be used to ensure the correct cooking temperature. 

As consumers around the world are becoming more aware of the dangers of the overuse of antibiotics in meat, sales of antibiotic-free meat have increased in the past few years and retailers are labeling antibiotic–free meats and products.   


READ MORE: A World in Our Backyard by Laura Sesana

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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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