Dear Sasquatch: Are There Superbugs in My Bacon?
My roommate is really into organic food, and I told him I didn’t think it was worth the money, so we pretty much agreed to buy and eat our own food. But he did show me an article about animal antibiotics creating superbugs that infect humans: How Using Antibiotics In Animal Feed Creates Superbugs. It kind of freaked me out. Is organic meat actually better for you?
Aside from eating all evidence of my dead relatives, I don’t eat meat, but not because of concerns about antibiotic use in animals or superbugs. If I did eat meat, I would be far more concerned about bacterial contamination in an animal that wasn’t treated with antibiotics.
But one claim in this article is true: Antibiotic use is creating “superbugs,” antibiotic-resistant bacteria, in animals as well as in humans. But antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans is related to human use of antibiotics, not eating animals who have been given antibiotics.
The NPR article your roommate showed you is misleading in a few ways. If you look at the main study the article is based on (available here), the researchers say, “Genomic analyses presented here, in conjunction with previous epidemiological data, suggest that the jump from humans to animals was followed by a decreased capacity for human colonization, transmission, and virulence, yet livestock-associated CC398 has been linked to an increase in MRSA [methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus] infections in northern Europe. Further research is required to characterize the full scope of the genetic changes associated with the shift from humans to livestock.”
In other words, the bugs are less capable of being transmitted to humans and less virulent. They mention infections in Europe, but if you look at those studies, they point out that people working with livestock, not eating it, are the majority who contract the MRSA, and that infections happen very rarely. The NPR article takes the most extreme case, The Netherlands, and notes that 1 in 4 MRSA cases are from the animal superbug. Click on the link and the study it points to says that the carriage is high there because of frequent contact with the animals and that even then, illness is rare.
This is an important point. You can carry these bacteria without developing an infection. Talking about carriage is misleading when the actual infections are rare.
Another misleading point in the NPR article is that “most antibiotics sold in the U.S. go to animals.” Of course they do! The data this is based on, from the FDA, are in kilograms of antibiotics. A 1000-lb cow is going to need more antibiotics for an infection than a human. Also, most of the antibiotics used in animals are not or are very rarely used in humans, so the resistant bacteria that develop are resistant to antibiotics we wouldn’t use to treat the infection in ourselves. What aren’t rare are infections in animals not treated with antibiotics, and these infections not only hurt the animals but can contaminate our food.
This doesn’t mean that we should ignore that this is happening. Yes, we should absolutely be concerned about what could happen with antibiotic-resistant bacteria jumping from animals to humans. It isn’t a concern with our food supply now, but it is sensible to research the issue further and take preventive steps, such as further limiting the use in animals of antibiotics that are important to human health.
Add to this the anti-contamination steps in food processing and that cooking our food properly kills all bacteria, and we’re left with a pretty rare risk of a problem. In reality, people don’t always cook their food properly, contamination does slip through, and cross-contamination in kitchens can be a problem even if the food is thoroughly cooked, but I’d still be far more worried about E. coli contamination from animals not treated with antibiotics than superbugs from animals treated with them humanely.
Regardless of the source of your meat, you risk contamination. I’d much rather see the media and government focus on public education regarding safe food handling than scaremongering that could actually make our food less safe.
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Superbug image by Andy MacLeod.