JANUARY 17, 2003: Most patients with food poisoning don't
need to be treated with antibiotics. But for those whose infections
spread beyond the intestine, antibiotic treatment can be live
saving. Two studies released this month indicate that several
critical antibiotics may be losing their effectiveness. The
studies found that bacteria commonly found on supermarket
chicken and poultry are getting stronger - developing resistance
to many of the most valuable antibiotics used to treat humans.
Both studies pointed to the overuse of drugs in factory poultry
and livestock farms as part of the problem. The scientific
consensus is now that antibiotic use in food animals contributes
to antibiotic resistant bacteria transferred to humans, mainly
through contaminated food. The studies called for an end to
the routine feeding of antibiotics to animals that are not
sick - both to promote growth and to compensate for crowded,
stress-inducing, and unsanitary conditions that are conducive
Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria are the two most common
bacterial causes of U.S. foodborne illness, and are responsible
for over 3.3 million infections and more than 650 deaths every
year. The two new studies found high levels of Salmonella
and Campylobacter bacteria on supermarket poultry and that
these bacteria were resistant to important antibiotics - like
ciprofloxacin (Cipro), Synercid and tetracycline - that are
commonly used to treat humans.
The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Sierra
Club commissioned an independent laboratory this Fall to test
200 fresh chickens and 200 ground turkey. The lab found that
95 percent of the whole chickens were contaminated with Campylobacter
bacteria and nearly 62 percent of the Campylobacter tested
were resistant to one or multiple antibiotics. Salmonella
bacteria were found in 45 percent of ground turkey purchased,
and 62 percent of Salmonella from turkey tested were found
resistant to one or more antibiotics.
Another study published in the January issue of Consumer
Reports found that 49 percent of the chickens bought at supermarkets
and other stores are contaminated with Campylobacter and/or
Salmonella bacteria. Ninety percent of the Campylobacter tested
and 34 percent of the Salmonella tested showed resistance
to at least one antibiotic.
When bacteria is resistant to antibiotics that doctors rely
on for treating infections, it puts patients' lives at risk
by taking away a critical tool for recovery. These antibiotic
resistant strains of bacteria are more potent, increasing
the likelihood that you will become sick and stay sick longer
than if exposed to non-resistant organisms.
Bacteria become resistant from over-exposure to antibiotics.
The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70 percent
of all antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to pigs, poultry and
cattle for reasons other than treating disease, like growth
promotion. The majority of such medicines are "medically
important," and are identical, or nearly so, to human
There are a few steps that should be taken immediately to
protect the effectiveness of these antibiotics. Congress should
ban routine uses of medically important antibiotics in healthy
poultry and other livestock. Over 30 medical groups, including
the American Medical Association, have endorsed this action.
Poultry producers should stop feeding antibiotics to birds
that are not sick. Four of the top five chicken producers
already have sworn off any use of Cipro-like antibiotics.
Large volume buyers, like McDonald's, Popeye's, Hardee's,
Subway, Domino's and Wendy's all now claim they refuse to
buy chicken treated with Cipro-like antibiotics.
Aside from taking steps to cook meat and poultry thoroughly,
consumers can buy poultry raised without antibiotics. The
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has put together
an on-line state-by-state listing of meat and poultry producers
using no antibiotics, or no routine antibiotics, in addition
to restaurants and other places to buy these products - www.iatp.org/eatwell
In the fight against foodborne illness we are living on borrowed
time when it comes to antibiotics. But there are immediate
steps that producers, consumers and the government can take
to maintain the effectiveness of these life-saving drugs and
reduce illness and death from bacterial infections.
Ben Lilliston is the Communications coordinator with
the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade