Drug-Resistant Bacteria in Half Your Meat? Time for Congress to Act

04/15/2011 06:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2011
  • David Kirby Author/Journalist/Writing & Media Coach

Once again, our industrial food production system has come to bite us back -- this time in the form of drug-resistant staph bacteria detected in one-half of supermarket meat samples tested in one study, with one-half of the resistant samples found with bacteria that were resistant to multiple drugs.

This sad and disturbing news will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the industrialization and consolidation of modern American animal agriculture. The american meat industry has already attacked the study as too small to be conclusive, but the take home message is clear: U.S. producers rely far too heavily on unregulated antibiotics, and it's time to put a stop to it.

I have written extensively about the overuse of antibiotics on American factory farms, or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), including in my book Animal Factory. Sub-therapeutic antibiotics promote animal growth and stave off epidemics, a constant problem when animals are crammed into confinements by the thousands. I have also been keeping up with the presence of MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), in our meat.

But many other warnings about the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture have been issued over the years, including from the Union of Concerned Scientists -- which estimates that 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used on food animals -- and the Pew Commission on Industrial Animal Production. Most of those warnings went unheeded by the USDA and power brokers in Washington.

"The bacteria is always going to be there. But the reason why they're resistant is directly related to antibiotic use in food animal production," lead author Dr. Lance Price told Reuters. "Antibiotic resistance is one of the greatest threats to public health we face today."

Staph causes hundreds of thousands of infections in the United States every year, and drug resistant staph like MRSA kills more Americans than AIDS/HIV.

Farm and feed magazines are overflowing with ads for antibiotics that promise "Fast growth" and "Record time to market." Meanwhile, Danish pig farmers are doing just fine after adjusting to raising their animals without growth-promoting drugs. U.S. pig producers can certainly do the same.

Maybe now the average American consumer will finally take note, and demand that Congress do something about this growing problem. Candidate Obama ran in support of an antibiotic ban in 2008, but has done little to advance the cause since then.

The President should revisit his campaign pledges, and come out fighting for the "Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act" (PAMTA), introduced by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), which has been languishing in Congress due to fierce industry opposition. The bill would phase out non-therapeutic use of medically important antibiotics in farming, without restricting them for sick animals or treating pets.

Resistant staph bacteria in your beef, pork, turkey and chicken "is one more reason to be very careful when you're handling raw meat and poultry in the kitchen," Dr. Price told Reuters. "You can cook away these bacteria. But the problem is when you bring in that raw product, you almost inevitably contaminate your kitchen with these bacteria."

And Dr. Price aptly stated: "To put it all on the consumer is really directing blame at the wrong end of the food chain."

Yes it's true, if you take proper precautions, cook your food well, and disinfect any surfaces touched by the raw meat, you can avoid infection for you and your family. And that is true for ALL meat products, wherever they come from.

But is the price of cheap industrial meat worth the risk of bringing multi-drug resistant bacteria into our homes? Can't we have our burgers and eat them too? Of course we can, if we tell Congress not to allow multi-drug resistant bacteria in our food to become the new normal.

Animal Factory (St. Martin's Press) is now out in paperback.