So far, 2012 is bringing bad news for people who don’t want antibiotics in their food.
Antibiotics are routinely given to factory-farm livestock to make them gain weight with less feed and keep them from getting sick in confined spaces. But the daily dosing, while it lowers feed needs, lowers drug effectiveness and produces antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs.
In January, researchers found 230 out of 395 pork cuts bought in U.S. stores were contaminated with a superbug called MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). Worse, there were “no statistically significant differences” between “conventionally raised swine and swine raised without antibiotics,” reported the researchers. However, this “finding … contrasts with a prior study from the Netherlands examining both conventional and ‘biologic’ meat products.”
Why would meat labeled “raised without antibiotics” be as full of superbugs as conventional and factory-farmed meat? Meat can be contaminated with MRSA at the farm by slaughterhouse workers who carry MRSA or by other meat if processing equipment is not “cleaned out between runs of certified organic and non-certified organic meats,” say the researchers.
A 2009 study of swine workers in Iowa and Illinois found that almost half carried MRSA.
In December, the FDA scrapped its three-decade-long effort to regulate the use of the popular human antibiotics penicillin and tetracycline in livestock. While the FDA says in the announcement that it “remains concerned about the issue of antimicrobial resistance,” it also says, “contested, formal withdrawal proceedings” consume too much of its time and money.
For example, withdrawing nitrofurans from livestock use took 20 years; DES (diethylstilbestrol) took seven years; and enrofloxacin took five years and cost $3.3 million, says the agency.
Cynics might have seen the concession to Big Meat coming when a report from a USDA-contracted researcher who asserted that MRSA killed more Americans per year than AIDS “disappeared” from the National Agricultural Library website last summer with no explanation, says reporter Tom Philpott. MRSA is a dangerous form of staph bacteria that has become resistant to some antibiotics.
Why would meat labeled ‘raised without antibiotics’ be as full of superbugs as conventional and factory-farmed meat?
Of course, MRSA is only one antibiotic-resistant germ. Clinicians also worry about vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE); Clostridium difficile, a serious intestinal bug that is developing resistance; and resistant Acinetobacter baumannii, which affected U.S. troops in Iraq.
Days after the USDA announcement, there was another concession. The FDA issued new, watered-down rules on the use of cephalosporins in livestock (a different type of antibiotic) after Big Meat muscled down the FDA’s original order to prohibit cephalosporins in 2008—an order that also disappeared with little explanation.
Cephalosporins are antibiotics like Cefzil and Keflex used for pneumonia, strep throat, salmonella, and skin and urinary tract infections in humans and one type of antibiotic that Clostridium difficile is developing resistance to. Over a million human salmonella infections occur in the United States per year, resulting in 16,000 hospitalizations and nearly 600 deaths, reported the Harford Advocate.
This is the first of a two-part series. Next week: More evidence food-producing animals can cause adverse effects in humans.
Martha Rosenberg is a health reporter and author who lives in Chicago.