STUDY: More Than Half Of U.S. Meat Contains Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

A federal study has found more than half of samples of ground turkey, pork chops and ground beef tested positive for strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, adding to fears that heavy use of antibiotics in livestock is giving rise to superbugs.

The report, published by the Food and Drug Administration in February, tested 480 samples each of ground turkey, pork chops, ground beef, and three cuts of chicken, all collected from U.S. supermarkets in 2011. The research received little attention until the Environmental Working Group combed through its findings and presented them in its own report, stating that according to the federal data, antibiotic resistant strains of salmonella and Campylobacteron were found in 81 percent of ground turkey, 69 percent of pork chops, 55 percent of ground beef and 39 percent of chicken wings, breasts and thighs. In addition, the EWG reported that the FDA study found 87 percent of the meat samples tested positive for Enterococcus bacteria, indicating that the meat had at one point come in contact with fecal matter.

The federal study’s results are perhaps unsurprising given the wealth of recent discoveries surrounding antibiotic use in livestock. A Pew Charitable Trusts report in February found the meat industry consumes 80 percent of antibiotics used in the U.S. — more than four times the amount of antibiotics taken by sick Americans. Antibiotics are used by the meat industry to promote faster growth and keep their animals, who are often crammed into factory farm facilities by the thousands, free of disease.

But the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria in meat is particularly disconcerting in light of evidence discovered last month that these superbugs can originate in animals and spread to humans. It also adds weight to the warnings of England’s Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies, who said earlier this year that “antibiotics are losing their effectiveness at a rate that is both alarming and irreversible.”

In spite of its own findings, the FDA has so far done little to curb the meat industry’s use of antibiotics. The agency banned one class of antibiotics for use in poultry production in 2005 because of an “alarming” increase in the rate of resistance in bacteria, but a study from 2012 found evidence that the banned substances were still being used by some poultry farmers. And last year, instead of finally acting on an “Opportunity for a Hearing” notice it posted 34 years ago on the use of Penicillin and Tetracycline in animal feed, the FDA threw out the notice. As the EWG’s report notes, the administration opted instead to recommend antibiotic use in meat and poultry production “should be limited to those uses that are considered necessary for assuring animal health” and said using antibiotics to promote growth in livestock was “an injudicious use of these important drugs.” But its recommendations were just that — voluntary guidelines that have yet to carry any real weight.