The eco-activist NGO Environmental Working Group is at again with their “Superbugs Invade American Supermarkets!” scare stories. They’ve been pounding the drum about forcing producers to abandon the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics for years, and have trotted out a 2011 CDC study again, and again, and again in an effort to 1). Fund raise 2). Influence Congress and 3). Generate attention—which takes us right back to No. 1).
“Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are now common in the meat aisles of American supermarkets,” their latest “shocking report” revealed. “These so-called superbugs—salmonella and campylobacter—can trigger foodborne illness and infections that are hard to treat [and] cause 3.6 million cases of food poisoning a year.”
That all sounds ominous, with little to put it in perspective, but let’s try.
First of all, the numbers are inflated. What EWG is quoting are estimates of the number of cases of sickness caused by the various pathogens. Not all cases are reported, of course, but not all cases that require treatment or even hospitalization are confirmed as to the sources of the infection. It’s all based on people’s best guesses as to the causes and the numbers.
More importantly, according to a comprehensive CDC report in 2001—the same one that EWG loves to tout—the situation is improving, not deteriorating.
“The overall incidence for the six key pathogens (campylobacter, listeria, salmonella, E. coli O157, yersinia and vibrio) was 23% lower in 2010 than during 1996 to 1998,” the report stated. “For individual pathogens, the incidence was significantly lower—for E. coli O157 (a 44% decrease) and campylobacter (a 27% decrease).”
Does that sound like cause for apprehension? Or celebration?
The CDC report went on to state that salmonella continues to be problematic, but not primarily because of producers, as EWG implies.
“Salmonella causes an estimated 1.2 million U.S. illnesses annually, approximately 1 million of which are transmitted by food consumed in the United States,” the report stated. “Salmonella can contaminate a wide range of foods, and different serotypes tend to have different animal reservoirs and food sources, making control challenging. Reducing salmonella infection and other foodborne infections will require strong action to prevent food contamination at multiple steps along the farm to the table chain, a prominent lesson from the success in reducing STEC O157 infection. Farmers, the food industry, regulatory agencies, food service, consumers, and public health authorities all have a role.”