Bacteria resistant to antibiotics is up in factory poultry

By Ben Lilliston


January 08, 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 food.

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 crowded,
stress-inducing and unsanitary conditions that are conducive to infection.

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 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 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 in
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

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

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