Why Superbugs Are a Threat to Global Health
To follow the news is to know that there are chemicals in our waterways and carcinogens in our food supply. But what and where and how much? That’s when things get murky. Which is why we tapped Nneka Leiba, the director of healthy living science at the Environmental Working Group. In her monthly column, Leiba answers our most pressing concerns about toxicity, the environment, and the health of the planet. Got a question for her? You can send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s something to consider: Could industrial farms’ use of antibiotics on livestock be responsible for antibiotic-resistant infections in people?
The latest round of tests by federal scientists at the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System found alarmingly high percentages of supermarket meat contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or superbugs. NARMS, a federal public health partnership, found that nearly 80 percent of store-bought meat contained bacteria resistant to at least one of the fourteen antibiotics for which it tested. The tests detected several microbes that cause disease in humans: salmonella, campylobacter, and E. coli.
Farms still rely on antibiotics and other synthetic treatments to prevent diseases caused by stressful, crowded, and unsanitary conditions for farm animals. As if the presence of these bacteria weren’t bad enough, the scientists found many strains resistant to antibiotics, making them even more dangerous for humans.
In the available data from the last five years, on average, one in five strains of salmonella found on grocery store chicken was resistant to amoxicillin, a type of penicillin. Amoxicillin is the number one prescription drug given to children each year. The World Health Organization designates amoxicillin and penicillins as a class as “critically important antibiotics” for use in human medicine. But penicillins as a class are also the second-most-used type of antibiotics in food animals.
A new Environmental Working Group analysis of more than 47,000 federal government lab tests of bacteria on supermarket meat found an increase in the already high number of pork chops and ground beef contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Levels on ground turkey and chicken breasts remained high but saw a slight decline.
Drug-resistant bacteria were detected on 79 percent of ground turkey, 71 percent of pork chops, 62 percent of ground beef, and 36 percent of chicken breasts, wings, and thighs sampled in supermarkets by NARMS in 2015, the latest year for which data is available.
The implications are significant and come at a time when authorities are showing increasing concern over the potential effects of antibiotic-resistant bacteria on human health. The WHO has described it as one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.
What is a superbug?
Most commonly, superbugs are bacteria that survive antibiotics. While antibiotic resistance can have a variety of causes, the end result is that weak bacteria are killed, leaving behind resilient strains capable of producing untreatable infections. Soon after surviving an antibiotic assault, this stronger strain of bacteria will divide to reproduce, making more bacteria. If these progeny bacteria maintain the same genetic material as their parents, they will also be resistant to the antibiotics.
But bacteria don’t need to reproduce to spread their antibiotic-resistance genes. They can also transfer the genes to other bacteria they come in contact with in the environment and in the gastrointestinal tracts of people and animals, making it very difficult to effectively treat infections.
A significant contributor to the looming superbug crisis is the unnecessary use of antibiotics by factory farms, which are responsible for most of the 8.9 billion animals raised for food in the US every year. Industrial livestock producers routinely give healthy animals antibiotics to prevent infection in crowded, stressful, and often unsanitary living conditions.
Each year, at least 2 million Americans become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections.
Despite this serious threat, the federal government still allows meat producers to give healthy animals antibiotics that are important for human health.
By choosing organic meat and meat raised without antibiotics, consumers can help reduce the amount of antibiotics used in farm animals and slow the spread of drug resistance.
It’s time for big agribusiness to exercise the same restraint shown by good doctors and patients: Use antibiotics only by prescription to treat or control disease. The Food and Drug Administration must take more aggressive steps to keep antibiotic-resistant bacteria from proliferating in the nation’s meat supply. Americans shouldn’t have to wait until all of the bacteria found on meat are untreatable with antibiotics before the FDA takes action. Now is the time for the FDA to get medically important antibiotics off of factory farms.
How to avoid superbugs in meat
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are now common in the meat aisles of most American supermarkets. These organisms can cause foodborne illnesses and other infections. Consumers need to know about the potential contamination of the meat they eat so they can be vigilant about food safety, especially when cooking for children, pregnant women, older adults, or the immune-compromised.
In the absence of leadership from the FDA, the EWG provides consumers with the following tips to minimize exposure to superbugs in meat:
- Choose organic.
- Buy from farmers and producers who use antibiotics prudently.
- Ask your butcher or local farmer how the meat was raised.
- Be label-savvy. Avoid confusing and misleading claims on labels. Use the new EWG Label Decoder to understand meat and dairy labels and find the most reliable claims.
As the director of healthy living science at the Environmental Working Group, Nneka Leiba, M.Phil., M.P.H., translates complicated scientific topics, particularly ones dealing with the effects of everyday chemical exposures on our health, into easily accessible tips and advice. Leiba has become an expert in a wide range of issues, including the safety of ingredients in cosmetics and other consumer products, and drinking water quality. She earned graduate degrees in zoology and public health from the University of the West Indies and Johns Hopkins University, respectively.