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A closer look at antibiotic-resistant superbugs found on supermarket meats

Photo: Sinclair Broadcast Group

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) - The holiday season is now upon us and the safety of our favorite store-bought meat is under the microscope.

This week Spotlight on America looks at the chances the meat you’ll buy has been contaminated with drug-resistant bacteria.

When you buy raw meat in the grocery store, what you're bringing home is often more than dinner. Dr. Lance Price is the Founding Director of George Washington University's Antibiotic Resistance Action Center, a leading research laboratory at the Milken School of Public Health.

"The chances of you buying a product that is contaminated with drug-resistant bacteria is very high," said Dr. Price. "We raise 9 billion food animals to be slaughtered and made into meat. When we give them low doses of antibiotics on a routine basis, we're just fueling the growth of bacteria, drug-resistant bacteria that can spread among those animals. Then they get distributed to every grocery store in the country."

Price added that an estimated 70 percent of antibiotics used in America were given to farm animals that end up on dinner plates. His team bought two dozen samples of poultry from four major national retailers, ranging from chicken breasts and ground chicken, to ground turkey, Turkey burgers and drumsticks. The samples were then delivered to their lab for testing.

Before running their tests, Dr. Price's lab identified the four most common bacteria to cause food borne illness: E. coli, Salmonella, Staphylococcus, and Campylobacter. Then they determined if the bacteria they found were antibiotic resistant.

"In one of the samples, we found an E. coli that was resistant to 11 different antibiotics," Dr. Price said. "So that's 11 options no longer on the table for treating that infection."

In total, 88 percent of the samples harbored antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Dr. Price said the problem with antibiotic-resistant bacteria is that it exists everywhere in conventional meat production, making the type of meat, brand names, and stores irrelevant.

Every year the U.S.D.A. tests thousands of pieces of grocery store meat for antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The data were analyzed by the Environmental Working Group. Their most recent report shows 75 percent of bacteria found on grocery store meat is antibiotic resistant.

Thoroughly cooking meat will kill the bacteria. But Price says the bacteria are typically spread beyond the meat itself -- from the grocery cart at the store all the way to your kitchen.

“So, you open a package of chicken," said Price. "You have a contaminated package to deal with, right? So, you open the trash can; you contaminated that. You're going to go wash your hands, so you turn on a faucet and you've just contaminated the faucet. You're going to pump the soap, and you contaminate that. You're going to wash your hands really well. You shut off the faucet, re-contaminate your hands, go make a salad. Right? So, that's how easy it is to spread these bacteria into the kitchen.”

Price said that is important to remember that cross-contamination can be prevented if the right precautions are taken. To eliminate the spread of bacteria in the kitchen, he said it is best to follow proper food-safety practices.

Statement from National Chicken Council:

"More than half of the chicken meat produced in the U.S. is now produced without the use of antibiotics. Per FDA [Food and Drug Administration] guidelines, antibiotics are only administered to treat and prevent disease in livestock, only under the prescription of a licensed veterinarian. If an antibiotic is used on the farm, federal rules require the antibiotics to have cleared the animals’ systems before they can be slaughtered. For approved antibiotics, FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have extensive monitoring and testing programs to make sure that food at the grocery store does not contain antibiotic residues. According to the most recent report from the FDA, Salmonella and Campylobacter prevalence in retail chicken meat samples continue to decline, and both are at their lowest levels since NARMS began testing. Though we’ve collectively made tremendous progress in reducing pathogens, the fact is raw chicken is not sterile, and any raw agricultural product, whether its fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, meat or poultry, is susceptible to naturally occurring bacteria that could make someone sick if improperly handled or cooked. We all play an important role in ensuring food safety for our families, and there are steps people can take in the home to significantly reduce any risk. For raw chicken, that means washing your hands before and after contact, not cross-contaminating other surfaces, cutting boards, knives, etc. and cooking chicken to a minimum internal temperature of 165 F. Even though bacteria may be resistant to some antibiotics, it is not resistant to the proper heat from an oven or grill."

Statement from Director of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs Katie Rose McCullough, Ph.D., MPH at the North American Meat Institute:

“It’s a fundamental fact of nature that raw agricultural products like poultry contain bacteria and it’s our job to reduce those bacteria to the lowest levels possible. U.S. Department of Agriculture data show our efforts to reduce bacteria are working and Centers for Disease Control data show that foodborne illnesses in humans are also declining. Just like humans, animals sometimes need antibiotics and they are administered under veterinary oversight to ensure that they are used appropriately. When antibiotics are given, strict withdrawal periods are followed before birds are processed into food. Used properly by expert veterinarians, antibiotics are very effective in destroying bacteria and ensuring animal health. But occasionally, some bacteria survive and become resistant to an antibiotic. The good news is that being resistant to one antibiotic doesn’t mean a germ is resistant to all antibiotics. Meat and poultry scientists are always working to develop the best strategies possible to target and destroy bacteria that can cause illness while preserving the effectiveness of antibiotics. While no foodborne illness is acceptable, the fact is that Americans eat billions of servings of poultry every year and more than 99.99 percent of those servings are consumed safely. The public should follow good safe handling and cooking practices and know that poultry companies are committed to providing the public with products that are as safe as we can make them.”

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