A news story making the rounds this week suggested that more than half of the retail samples of ground turkey, pork chops and ground beef tested by federal officials were found to contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
In a way, that’s old news, because the data were actually collected in 2011 by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, a joint program of FDA, USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though nearly two years old now, the data showed a significant increase in the amount of products found with antibiotic-resistant forms of salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter.
The government initially published the findings in February this year, but the release generated little media coverage—until the Environmental Work Group issued a report titled, “Superbugs Invade American Supermarkets.” What’s important to know about that report—other than its provocative title—is that a company called Applegate helped underwrite the report. Good company, excellent products, but an organization with an agenda, since Applegate markets organic and antibiotic-free “natural” meats.
Although EWG representatives raised the red flag—“The numbers are pretty striking,” said Dawn Undurraga, a nutritionist with the health advocacy organization—veterinarians working with work with such groups as the International Food Information Council and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance criticized the report, calling it “misleading.”
“The No. 1 misunderstanding about antibiotics in animal agriculture is that it is not understood well enough that antibiotics are used to keep animals healthy, period,” Randall Singer, a veterinary science professor at the University of Minnesota, told The New York Times.
There are problems with the methodology of the government survey, Singer argued. He noted the limited number of samples in the data—480 samples each of ground turkey, pork chops, ground beef, chicken breasts, wings and thighs—is tiny compared with the amount of meat sold in the United States.
But he voiced a more serious charge, one at the heart of the animal antibiotics debate, in saying, “We should not assume that when we find resistance to antibiotics in humans, it means it was caused by the use of antibiotics in animals.”
No, we should not. But we also shouldn’t rule it out a priori, either.
A bowl of bacteria
Here’s another factoid that media members rarely separate out from an overall focus on the idea of “contamination!”