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.”

Meat Protein Shown to be Potentially Risky for Heart Health Compared to Protein from Nuts and Seeds

Add this to the list of reasons to eat less (or no) meat. It isn’t widely known, but the World Health Organization classifies processed meat as a carcinogen, there’s legitimate concern of the antibiotics used in animals leading to negative health effects, and the U.S. no longer has a meat origin labeling law. Actually, since 2017, imported meat is allowed to be labeled as a product of the USA, a real “America first” policy if there ever was one.

A study conducted by researchers in California and France has found that meat protein is associated with a sharp increased risk of heart disease while protein from nuts and seeds is beneficial for the human heart.

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The study, which was published online today by the International Journal of Epidemiology, found that people who consumed large amounts of meat protein experienced a 60-percent increase in cardiovascular disease (CVD), while people who consumed large amounts of protein from nuts and seeds experienced a 40-percent reduction in CVD.

The study, which included data from more than 81,000 participants, is one of the few times detailed sources of animal protein have been examined jointly with animal fat in a major investigation.

Gary Fraser, MB ChB, PhD, from Loma Linda University, and François Mariotti, PhD, from AgroParisTech and the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique, served as co-principal investigators.

“While dietary fats are part of the story in affecting risk of cardiovascular disease, proteins may also have important and largely overlooked independent effects on risk,” Fraser said. He added that he and his colleagues have long suspected that including nuts and seeds in the diet protects against heart and vascular disease, while red meats increase risk.