Analysis: Harmful Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs Lurking on 75% of U.S. Meat

The wise (in my view) decision to avoid meat isn’t only a moral position due to how animals are treated in factory farms — it is also a health position. Processed meat has been declared as carcinogenic by the WHO, U.S. chicken has been found to be able to cross-contaminate kitchens with its inadequate cleanliness standards, and now even plant protein has been declared by scientific research as healthier than meat protein.

A new analysis offers alarming findings as many Americans get ready to fire up their grills for the 4th of July—nearly 80 percent of supermarket meat was found to have antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs.

That’s according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which sifted through over 47,000 tests of bacteria on supermarket meat, including beef, chicken, pork, and turkey, undertaken by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System in 2015, the most recent year for which the data is available.

“Consumers need to know about potential contamination of the meat they eat so they can be vigilant about food safety, especially when cooking for children, pregnant women, older adults or the immune-compromised,” said report author Dawn Undurraga, a nutritionist with the Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy organization. The high levels, the report notes, call into question the effectiveness of the FDA’s 2013 guidance calling for reduction in the use of  use of antibiotics to make livestock grow more quickly.

Undurraga noted that “the government still allows most producers to give highly important antibiotics to healthy animals to compensate for stressful, crowded, and unsanitary conditions,” which are rampant on factory farms. “These non-treatment uses are counter to WHO recommendations, and create a breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

EWG also says the FDA continues to downplay the data, even as warnings about the threat of antibiotic resistance increase at thenational and global level.

According to the WHO, such resistance remains “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today,” and warns the crisis “is rising to dangerously high levels in all parts of the world.”

EWG’s new analysis shows that three in four bacteria on the grocery store meat samples were resistant to at least one of the 14 antibiotics tested. The group stressed that being resistant to just one is cause for concern, as genes that confer the trait of antibiotic resistance can transfer from one bacterium to another.

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Alongside the analysis, EWG also sent a letter (pdf) to the FDA, which warned that “there are alarming and growing numbers of superbugs in supermarket meat,” and called on the agency to take urgent action to live up to its mission.

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In the absence of such action, EWG points consumers to a short guide to help avoid superbugs, which includes tips such as being aware of misleading labeling, choosing organic meat, and using safe practices in the kitchen.

Chlorine Washing of Food Doesn’t Remove Contaminants, Study Finds, Igniting Safety Concerns in American Poultry Exported Abroad

Another reason to eat less or no meat — chlorine-washed food can actually cross-contaminate a kitchen.

The chlorine washing of food, the controversial “cleaning” technique used by many US poultry producers who want access to the British market post-Brexit, does not remove contaminants, a new study has found.

The investigation, by a team of microbiologists from Southampton University and published in the US journal mBio, found that bacilli such as listeria and salmonella remain completely active after chlorine washing. The process merely makes it impossible to culture them in the lab, giving the false impression that the chlorine washing has been effective.

Apart from a few voluntary codes, the American poultry industry is unregulated compared with that in the EU, allowing for flocks to be kept in far greater densities and leading to a much higher incidence of infection. While chicken farmers in the EU manage contamination through higher welfare standards, smaller flock densities and inoculation, chlorine washing is routinely used in the US right at the end of the process, after slaughter, to clean carcasses. This latest study indicates it simply doesn’t work.

Currently, chlorine-washed chicken is barred from entry to the EU on animal welfare grounds and has become a contentious issue for opponents of liberal trade deals with the US post-Brexit.

Previous studies with similar findings have been dismissed by the US poultry industry as producing “laboratory-only” results with no relevance to the real world. “We therefore tested the strains of listeria and salmonella that we had chlorine-washed on nematodes [roundworms], which have a relatively complex digestive system,” said Professor William Keevil, who led the university team. “All of them died. Many companies and scientists have built their reputations promoting anti-microbial products. This research questions everything they’ve done.”

The study tested contaminated spinach, but Keevil insists the findings apply equally to chicken. “This is very concerning,” he said. The issue, he argues, is less to do with the chicken itself, the contamination of which can be managed by thorough cooking. “It’s that chlorine-washed chicken, giving the impression of being safe, can then cross-contaminate the kitchen.”

Glyphosate is a Significant Public Health Threat — Doses Previously Considered Safe Now Shown as Harmful in New Study

Glyphosate (found in the dangerous Monsanto Roundup) is a carcinogen that’s now being shown to be harmful in other ways too. It shouldn’t be allowed to be used, and it has already contaminated such large amounts of food supplies.

A chemical found in the world’s most widely used weedkiller can have disrupting effects on sexual development, genes and beneficial gut bacteria at doses considered safe, according to a wide-ranging pilot study in rats.

Glyphosate is the core ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and levels found in the human bloodstream have spiked by more than a 1,000% in the last two decades.

The substance was recently relicensed for a shortened five-year lease by the EU. But scientists involved in the new glyphosate study say their results show that it poses “a significant public health concern”.

One of the report’s authors, Daniele Mandrioli, at the Ramazzini Institute in Bologna, Italy, said significant and potentially detrimental effects from glyphosate had been detected in the gut bacteria of rat pups born to mothers, who appeared to have been unaffected themselves.

“It shouldn’t be happening and it is quite remarkable that it is,” Mandrioli said. “Disruption of the microbiome has been associated with a number of negative health outcomes, such as obsesity, diabetes and immunological problems.”

Prof Philip J Landrigan, of New York’s Icahn School of Medicine, and also one of the research team, said: “These early warnings must be further investigated in a comprehensive long-term study.” He added that serious health effects from the chemical might manifest as long-term cancer risk: “That might affect a huge number of people, given the planet-wide use of the glyphosate-based herbicides.”

Banning Trans Fats Would Save 500,000 Lives a Year, WHO Says

There are alternatives to trans fats that are so much less harmful, and there’s good evidence that banning trans fats leads to public health improvements.

The use of trans fats leads to about 500,000 cardiovascular disease deaths each year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

These products are added to fried foods, baked goods, and snack products, and cause levels of bad cholesterol in blood to spike.

Now the WHO and governments around the world are cracking down. On Monday, the WHO announced a plan calling for governments to ban industrially-produced trans fats within five years.

“Trans fat is an unnecessary toxic chemical that kills, and there’s no reason people around the world should continue to be exposed,” Dr. Tom Frieden, former head of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), now president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, said in the WHO announcement statement.

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In 2001, the Danish Nutrition Council suggested the government limit trans fatsin foods to improve cardiovascular health. In 2003, a Danish law that limited the amounts of these fats in food was passed.

It worked, with death rates from cardiovascular disease falling faster there than in comparable countries.

Other European countries followed Denmark’s lead. Then, in 2006, New York City passed a law banning trans fats, phasing them out of the city by the summer of 2008.

The prompted all kinds of “Nanny Bloomberg” headlines referencing the mayor at the time. But it worked, according to a study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association Cardiology, reducing heart attack and stroke rates in the city.

Under the Obama administration, the FDA finally followed suit nationwide in 2015, with that ban going into full effect next month.

Trans fats are still commonly sold in countries throughout South Asia and Africa, where weaker regulations and stronger pressure by food producers have kept partially hydrogenated oils in circulation.

The WHO’s new policy can’t actually ban trans fats in these countries. But the hope is that the guidelines will encourage governments to enact these bans.

Raw Fruits and Vegetables May Provide Better Mental Health Outcomes

Mental health problems are a really significant undercurrent issue in countries across the world today, and so even more minor studies like this can be helpful at addressing them.

Seeking the feel good factor? Go natural.

That is the simple message from University of Otago researchers who have discovered raw fruit and vegetables may be better for your mental health than cooked, canned and processed fruit and vegetables.

Dr Tamlin Conner, Psychology Senior Lecturer and lead author, says public health campaigns have historically focused on aspects of quantity for the consumption of fruit and vegetables (such as 5+ a day).

However, the study, just published in Frontiers in Psychology, found that for mental health in particular, it may also be important to consider the way in which produce was prepared and consumed.

“Our research has highlighted that the consumption of fruit and vegetables in their ‘unmodified’ state is more strongly associated with better mental health compared to cooked/canned/processed fruit and vegetables,” she says.

Dr Conner believes this could be because the cooking and processing of fruit and vegetables has the potential to diminish nutrient levels.

“This likely limits the delivery of nutrients that are essential for optimal emotional functioning.”

For the study, more than 400 young adults from New Zealand and the United States aged 18 to 25 were surveyed. This age group was chosen as young adults typically have the lowest fruit and vegetable consumption of all age groups and are at high risk for mental health disorders.

The group’s typical consumption of raw versus cooked and processed fruits and vegetables were assessed, alongside their negative and positive mental health, and lifestyle and demographic variables that could affect the association between fruit and vegetable intake and mental health (such as exercise, sleep, unhealthy diet, chronic health conditions, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and gender).

“Controlling for the covariates, raw fruit and vegetable consumption predicted lower levels of mental illness symptomology, such as depression, and improved levels of psychological wellbeing including positive mood, life satisfaction and flourishing. These mental health benefits were significantly reduced for cooked, canned, and processed fruits and vegetables.

“This research is increasingly vital as lifestyle approaches such as dietary change may provide an accessible, safe, and adjuvant approach to improving mental health,” Dr Conner says.

* The top 10 raw foods related to better mental health were: carrots, bananas, apples, dark leafy greens such as spinach, grapefruit, lettuce, citrus fruits, fresh berries, cucumber, and kiwifruit.

Making Smoked Foods Less Harmful and Tastier Using Zeolite Filters

An innovation that significantly reduces carcinogen levels in smoked foods this is. Too much in modern human society is already carcinogenic, so reducing that when possible is helpful.

Infusing foods with smoke can impart delicious nuanced flavors, but could also come with an unwelcome side of carcinogens. To reduce the carcinogen content of smoked foods, researchers took a lesson from the automobile industry, running the smoke through a zeolite filter to remove harmful compounds. It worked, and with a happy bonus: superior smoke flavor.

“The smoking process can cause carcinogens to form in foods. Not all smoked foods are dangerous, but we do know most can contain low levels of these substances, so we should try to remove them. If we could produce a smoke with fewer carcinogens, but that still has the same great taste, that would be ideal,” says Jane K. Parker, Ph.D., leader of the study. “Zeolite filters, which are put in a tailpipe, have been used in the car industry to reduce environmental pollutants, but they haven’t been applied to food yet. We want to change that.”

As a first step, engineers from Besmoke, a company that specializes in natural smoking, teamed up with Parker, who is at the University of Reading (U.K.). They optimized filters made from zeolite, a porous aluminosilicate mineral, with the goal of maximizing the removal of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from smoke. PAHs are a ubiquitous side product of fuel consumption, long known to increase the risk for a variety of cancers, as well as cardiovascular disease. The U.S. and European Union regulate environmental levels of PAHs.

The best filter they developed removed as much as 93 percent of benzo[a]pyrene, a known carcinogen. “There have been a couple of attempts to reduce carcinogens in smoke using other technologies, but they aren’t as effective as our approach,” Parker says. But the question remained about how food flavored with the filtered smoke compared to that produced by unfiltered smoke.

To address this question, the researchers smoked tomato flakes, coconut oil and water using either filtered or unfiltered smoke. Then, they added the smoked tomato flakes to cream cheese and used the water to brine some chicken. A panel of expert tasters trained to describe differences in flavor profiles with standard terminology tried the cream cheese, coconut oil and chicken. “To the tasters, the chicken made with filtered smoke had a bit of a ‘Christmas ham’ aroma and a more rounded balanced flavor,” Parker says. Foods made with the unfiltered smoke, by contrast, tended to score higher in the categories of “ash tray” and “acrid smoke.”

Obesity May Dull the Sense of Taste

The study here found that obese mice had about 25 percent fewer taste buds than mice of a healthy weight. As some similar effect is likely found in humans, this research should provide an increased motivation (that is, enjoyment of food) for reducing the obesity epidemic, which I have written about at more length before.

Previous studies have indicated that weight gain can reduce one’s sensitivity to the taste of food, and that this effect can be reversed when the weight is lost again, but it’s been unclear as to how this phenomenon arises. Now a study publishing March 20 in the open-access journal PLOS Biology by Andrew Kaufman, Robin Dando, and colleagues at Cornell University shows that inflammation, driven by obesity, actually reduces the number of taste buds on the tongues of mice.

A taste bud comprises of approximately 50 to 100 cells of three major types, each with different roles in sensing the five primary tastes (salt, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami). Taste bud cells turn over quickly, with an average lifespan of just 10 days. To explore changes in taste buds in obesity, the authors fed mice either a normal diet made up of 14% fat, or an obesogenic diet containing 58% fat. Perhaps unsurprisingly, after 8 weeks, the mice fed the obesogenic diet weigh about one-third more than those receiving normal chow. But strikingly, the obese mice had about 25% fewer taste buds than the lean mice, with no change in the average size or the distribution of the three cell types within individual buds.