Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Dirty Birds and More

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Recently, the news item read: “ Almost half of meat in stores may have drug-resistant bacteria.”  Oh no, here we go again!!!

One hundred thirty-six samples of beef, chicken, pork, and turkey representing 80 brands of meat were sampled from supermarkets in the U.S.  More than half of them (47%) contained strains of Staphylococcus aureus, that cause what is commonly referred to as “Staph infections.  Of these, 52% were resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics.  These disturbing findings were published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

DNA analysis revealed that animals were the source and the contamination originated in confined animal feeding operations (CAPOs).   According to Food, Inc. a fairly recent documentary on the dangers of our current food supply, “raising animals in confinement and feeding them grains and other feedstock- including animal waste by-products- is a relatively new phenomenon……….. as livestock were confined in high stocking densities often far from where their food was grown, a highly inefficient and environmentally costly system was born”.   Lance Price, an environmental health scientist and the lead author of the study said: “the animals most likely harbored these drug-resistant pathogens because the antibiotics routinely are fed to livestock to promote growth and prevent disease in crowded pens on large farms”.

Last summer, the FDA suggested to the meat industry and stockyards cut back on antibiotic use.  Animal use of antibiotics may not be the only practice to blame, however.   About half of humans harbor S. aureus in their noses and throats.  About 11,000 people die every year from these infections, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than half of those deaths are the hospital-associated “superbug” methicillin-resistant S. aureus, or MRSA.

A super large analysis of 525 store-bought chicken fresh whole broilers represented by four leading brands (Foster Farms, Perdue, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson) was analyzed.  In addition, 10 organic and 12 nonorganic no-antibiotic brands, including three that are “air chilled” in a newer slaughterhouse process designed to reduce contamination were included.

Here are the findings:

  • Campylobacter was present in 81% percent of the chickens, salmonella in 15%, both bacteria in 13%.  Only 17% had neither pathogen.  That’s the lowest percentage of clean birds since the Consumer’s Reports four studies in 1998, and far less than the 51% of clean birds found in the 2003 report.
  • No major brand fared better than others overall.  Foster Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson chickens were lower in Salmonella incidence than Perdue, but they were higher in Campylobacter.
  • Among all brands, 84% of the Salmonella and 67% of the Campylobacter organisms showed resistance to one or more antibiotics.
  • Even most of the premium chickens had dangerous levels of bacteria. There was one exception: Ranger – a no antibiotics brand (sold in 2007 in the Northwest) was extremely clean.  Of 10 samples analyzed, none had Salmonella, and only two had Campylobacter.  I don’t know whether this brand still exists.

There is some positive news.  The American Meat Institute, which represents producers, said that the country’s meat and poultry supply was safe.  Well, so much for that – how many times do we hear of E.coli recalls?

However, data from the CDC show that cases of food-borne illness in the U.S have declined 20% in the last decade.  All are not reported however

What can we do?

  • Of course, cook meat thoroughly
  • Wash all surfaces that meat comes in contact with soap and hot water.  I use a disinfectant and separate cutting boards, but I am probably somewhat paranoid.
  • Some experts recommend the use of gloves when handling raw meat (I do that too).
  • The problem of drug-resistant bacteria continues to be a major concern in human health.  “Studies in Canada and Denmark show that taking antibiotics out of animal feed makes antibiotic-resistant bacteria less prevalent in both animals and people with no ill effects for animals or rancher”, Lance Price said.

When will we ever learn?  Perhaps we have not done much better than the conditions described in Upton Sinclair’s novel of the meatpacking industry, The Jungle, written in 1906.

For a fairly graphic view of the current conditions in slaughterhouses, visit or revisit Chapter 8, The Most Dangerous Job and Chapter 9, What’s in the Meat? in Eric Schlosser’s book, Fast Food Nation.

Bon appétit!

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One thought on “Dirty Birds and More

  1. Pingback: Campylobacter – a bugger of a bug! | Microbiology for the Masses

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