Superbugs in the supermarket? Reports shed light on infections

Reports find increase in resistant bacteria in meat, foodborne illnesses

A pair of reports published last week suggests that an increasing amount of supermarket meat contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria—and it may be contributing to increases in foodborne illnesses and superbug infections in humans.

Report: More than 50% of certain meats contain resistant bacteria

In a report from the Environmental Work Group (EWG), researchers found that a sizable amount of supermarket meat products contained both normal and antibiotic-resistant forms of salmonella, Campylobacter, E. coli, and enterococcus.

The report was based on supermarket meat samples taken in 2011 by the National Antimicrobial Resistance, a program run jointly by FDA, USDA, and CDC.

It found that 87% of all the meat samples tested positive for either a normal or antibiotic-resistant form of the enterococcus bacteria. Moreover, more than half of ground turkey, pork chop, and ground beef samples tested positive for antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The report also found that, among raw chicken samples:

  • 53% contained antibiotic-resistant E. coli;
  • 26% contained antibiotic-resistant Campylobacter; and
  • 9% contained antibiotic-resistant salmonella.

The report notes that the amount of antibiotic-resistant bacteria present in meat has been increasing over time. For example, 74% of the salmonella found in raw chicken samples was antibiotic-resistant in 2011, up from 50% of the salmonella found in 2002.

"The numbers are pretty striking," said Dawn Undurraga—nutritionist at EWG and lead author of the report—adding, "It really raises a question about the antibiotics we are using in raising animals for meat."

Her concerns were echoed by Lance Price, a George Washington University professor who studies antibiotic resistance. He warned that exposure to drug-resistant bacteria is a "huge potential source for emergence of the next true superbug."

Report: Foodborne illnesses increased last year

Meanwhile, a new CDC report finds that human infections from dangerous bacteria found in contaminated food increased by 3% from 2011 to 2012. Overall, foodborne illnesses resulted in 4,563 hospitalizations and 68 deaths in 2012, according to the report.

CDC wrote in its report, "Reducing the incidence of foodborne infections will require commitment and action to implement measures known to reduce contamination of food and to develop new measures." The agency added that farmers, the food industry, federal regulators, and the food service industry all have an important role in preventing foodborne illness (Strom, New York Times, 4/16; Petrochko, MedPage Today, 4/18; Barclay, "The Salt," NPR, 4/17; Tomson, Wall Street Journal, 4/18).

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