Consumers Deserve to Know the Facts about Antibiotics and Meat

The federal Food and Drug Administration has published a statement on its website criticizing the Environmental Working Group’s report, Superbugs Invade American Supermarkets, published April 15.  The agency contends that EWG oversimplified data from the federal government’s 2011 Retail Meat Report, a joint project of the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

EWG’s message is indeed simple: Consumers have a right to know that federal scientists are finding antibiotic-resistant bacteria on retail meat in high percentages. EWG’s team of scientists and nutritionists has joined a growing number of public health experts who are drawing attention to the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 

The FDA contends that it’s alarmist to imply that pathogens resistant to one, or even a few, antimicrobials should be called “superbugs” – if these same bacteria are still treatable by other commonly used antibiotics. While the FDA insists that only pathogens that are untreatable (or nearly so) should be called superbugs, EWG believes that the development of resistance, even to only one antibiotic, is significant. It is well established that genes that confer the trait of antibiotic resistance readily transfer from one bacterium to others, that bacteria that develop resistance to one antibiotic can often withstand others, and that people can be allergic to entire classes of antibiotics, further limiting their options for treatment of infections.

The FDA says that consumers shouldn’t worry that federal scientists are finding antibiotic-resistant Enterococcus bacteria on their meat since they are not a confirmed foodborne pathogen. EWG clearly stated that Enterococcus are indicator bacteria. These bacteria are measured in order to mark fecal contamination and signal that other microbes on the meat are also likely to be antibiotic-resistant. Contaminated meat isn’t simply a cause of foodborne illness. Increasingly meat is being implicated as a carrier for antibiotic-resistant microbes that can cause urinary tract infections or staph infections in exposed cuts.

In 2003, FDA’s own scientists reported their concerns about the presence of Enterococcus on meat in a peer-reviewed paper. They wrote:

“Enterococcus faecalis and E. faecium present serious challenges to the control of antimicrobial resistance as they are the third leading cause of nosocomial infections in intensive care units in the United States.” 

In addition, they expressed special concerns about treating vancomycin-resistant E. faecium infections and said that the “use of antimicrobials in food animal production might compromise the efficacy of related drugs in human clinical medicine through selection of resistant populations and their subsequent transfer through the food supply.”

We appreciate the tough job the FDA has: It’s hard to spin the results of the Retail Meat Report positively. But we think consumers will take little comfort in FDA’s assertion that for one antibiotic, fluoroquinolone, “resistance in Campylobacter has stopped increasing and remained essentially unchanged since the FDA withdrew the use of this drug class in poultry in 2005.”  [emphasis ours]

This is the best the agency can do?

It has been failing to protect the public health on this issue for 40 years, only recently issuing a voluntary guidance to scale back on the worst antibiotic abuses.

EWG found that among all the antibiotics tested, resistance in Campylobacter microbes found on the raw chicken samples were on the rise, from a low in 2002 of 46 percent of microbes resistant to at least one antibiotic up to 58 percent in 2011. Thankfully, Campylobacter bacteria resistant to three or more antimicrobial classes are still rare, but the percentage of Campylobacter in chicken that are resistant to two or more antibiotic classes is at a nine-year high.

The facts are alarming. Federal scientists routinely test for and find salmonella resistant to six or more antimicrobial classes in poultry. We think the public deserves to know that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are in its meat now, and that the resistance in salmonella in poultry is also at a nine-year high. 

Does the FDA want people to wait until federal scientists routinely find untreatable salmonella in most meat? 

We don’t think that’s fair to the public. That’s why we brought these issues to light. We have created a list of simple Tips to Avoid Superbugs in Meat. The public deserves to know the facts as they stand today to protect themselves from antibiotic-resistant bacteria now common on most meat in grocery stores. 



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