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 such 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
The studies called for an end to the routine feeding
of antibiotics to animals that are not sick. Today they
are both used to promote growth and to compensate for
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 more than 3.3 million infections
and more than 650 deaths every year.
The two new studies found high levels of Salmonella
and Campylobacter 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 (IATP)
and the Sierra Club commissioned an independent laboratory
last fall to test 200 fresh chickens and 200 batches
of ground turkey. The lab found that 95 percent of the
whole chickens were contaminated with Campylobacter
and nearly 62 percent of the Campylobacter tested were
resistant to one or multiple antibiotics.
Salmonella bacteria were found in 45 percent of the
ground turkey purchased, and 62 percent of Salmonella
from turkey tested were found resistant to one or more
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 are 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 overexposure 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 antibiotics.
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
healthy poultry and other livestock. Over 30 medical
groups, including the American Medical Association,
have endorsed this action.
Aside from taking steps to cook meat and poultry thoroughly,
consumers can buy poultry raised without antibiotics.
The IATP 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 — at www.iatp.org/eatwell.
In the fight against foodborne illness, we are living
on borrowed time.
(Lilliston is the communications coordinator for the
Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade
Policy. For information, email email@example.com.)