The Odds Are One in Four: Gambling with Supermarket Meat is Risky

The results are in: One in four supermarket meat samples is tainted with drug-resistant bacteria.

According to NPR, nearly a quarter of the meat and poultry sold in U.S. supermarkets is infected with bacteria. The news organization cites research from the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), which sampled meat around the country and found that “47 percent had evidence of Staphylococcus aureus contamination. More than half of the bacteria they found were resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics, according to the study, published today in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.”

Researchers collected and analyzed 136 samples — covering 80 brands — of beef, chicken, pork, and turkey from 26 retail grocery stores in five U.S. cities: Los Angeles, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Flagstaff, and Washington, D.C.

In a TGen press release, Lance B. Price, senior author of the study and director of the center’s Food Microbiology and Environmental Health, said, “For the first time, we know how much of our meat and poultry is contaminated with antibiotic-resistant Staph, and it is substantial.”

If the headline doesn’t scare you, here are some reasons for concern:

  • DNA testing suggests that the food animals themselves were the major source of contamination. (That’s another reason to avoid feedlot meat!)
  • Although Staph should be killed with proper cooking, it may still pose a risk to consumers through improper food handling and cross-contamination in the kitchen.
  • S. aureus can cause a range of illnesses from minor skin infections to life-threatening diseases, such as pneumonia, endocarditis, and sepsis.
  • The drug-resistant strains found in the meat and poultry samples are especially difficult to treat because they’ve evolved beyond the regular arsenal of drugs that kill them.
  • S. aureus isn’t among the four types of drug-resistant bacteria the U.S. government looks for when it surveys retail meatThe researchers suggest that we need a better inspection program to help track the presence of the bug.

“The fact that drug-resistant S. aureus was so prevalent, and likely came from the food animals themselves, is troubling, and demands attention to how antibiotics are used in food-animal production today,” Dr. Price said.

Densely-stocked industrial farms, where food animals are steadily fed low doses of antibiotics, are ideal breeding grounds for drug-resistant bacteria that move from animals to humans, the report says.

Antibiotics use among livestock has been generating concern lately, as  80 percent of the antibiotics sold in 2009 were reserved for livestock and poultry, according to the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that “there is strong scientific evidence of a link between antibiotic use in food animals and antibiotic resistance in humans.”

No wonder everyone is sick all the time.

6 responses to “The Odds Are One in Four: Gambling with Supermarket Meat is Risky

  1. I am not surprised by these findings, but just to play Devil’s advocate: Was there any indication of how much grass-fed, non-industrial meat contains bacteria like this? I wouldn’t expect it to contain any strains resistant to antibiotics, but certainly not every piece of small-farm meat is going to be clean.

    As for your last comment – I agree. And to add that, I think this sort of contamination is also a contributing factor to the recent increase in food-related conditions, like gluten intolerance and food allergies. A friend of mine told me that it seems most parents he knows have at least one child with some sort of food-related limitation.

    • John, I don’t think non-industrialized meat was tested in this study and I agree that grassfed farming may not be perfect. I think there was a study done that I read about where both kinds of meat were tested and the rate of contamination was much lower for the grassfed products.

      What I like about getting meat locally from grassfed/pastured sources is that I can actually go see the farm and slaughtering facilities in person and that makes me feel more connected to my food, as well as more educated.

      I agree with you that all the stuff that goes into our food sources contribute to the health issues, and ultimately the health costs, in our country. It’s a real mess, isn’t it?!

      Thanks for your comment and your support!

  2. Thanks, Marcia, for all the good research! I totally agree with John that the seeming explosion of food-related allergies in our society is tied to people eating too much contaminated and processed foods – I know that I don’t feel really well if for some reason I am forced to eat processed foods (standard restaurant fare, “fast foods”, etc.) for too many days in a row. My body is too used to fresh food made from scratch, our own meats, etc. I suspect this sort of food-borne contamination may play a role in behavioral issues with children, such as ADD, autism, etc. That’s just my opinion, but as problems with foods and food sources have ramped up over my lifetime, the numbers of kids suffering from these illnesses seems to have increased exponentially also (although, that just may be a coincidence of diagnostic improvements and/or changes, too!)

    I also agree that it is not impossible for meats from local farms and small processors to be contaminated – however, we have been using several local processors for so many years and we’ve never had an issue, nor have we heard of any issues connected with those processors. I tend to think that the smaller organizations are able to keep on top of their routines and cleanliness better, and, as with any “face-to-face” relationship, I think everyone tries harder when you have to look the person in the face when you’re selling them something. When you’re sending out goods to anonymous thousands, it’s possibly easier to adopt an attitude of “it doesn’t affect me”.

    It is completely a “real mess”, especially when you factor in that the “big food” people are controlling the costs of farm commodities, driving up the costs of many major food products, the cost of feed for us “little guys” to feed our animals with, etc., and then they’re causing a lot of the food contamination issues in the bargain. Yikes . . .

    • It is a real mess, isn’t it?! Big Ag has surely contributed to one big screwed up industrialized food system. I’m just glad there are people like you around who *get it*. I really appreciate our local farmers! I should come out to your farm now that spring is here and do a blog post about Coach Stop!

      • We’re still trying to get some of our new efforts in place – let’s keep in touch about this. We’re still all awry with the house and yard after the tornado, too.

      • Marcia Davis

        Sounds good, Conni! Good luck getting things the way you want them!

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