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Published April 29, 2013, 10:30 AM

Study finds antibiotic-resistant bacteria

More than half of samples of ground turkey, pork chops and ground beef collected from supermarkets for testing by the federal government contained bacteria resistant to antibiotics, according to a new report highlighting the findings.

By: Stephanie Strom, The New York Times News Service

More than half of samples of ground turkey, pork chops and ground beef collected from supermarkets for testing by the federal government contained bacteria resistant to antibiotics, according to a new report highlighting the findings.

The data, collected in 2011 by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System — a joint program of the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — show a sizable increase in the amount of meat contaminated with antibiotic-resistant forms of bacteria, known as superbugs, like salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter.

The government published the findings in February, but they received scant attention until the Environmental Working Group issued its report, “Superbugs Invade American Supermarkets,” which was partly underwritten by Applegate, which sells organic and antibiotic-free “natural” meats.

“The numbers are pretty striking,” says Dawn Undurraga, the nutritionist for the group, a health research and advocacy organization. “It really raises a question about the antibiotics we are using in raising animals for meat.”

Academic veterinarians who work with the International Food Information Council, financed in part by major food companies, and with the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, which receives some financing from veterinary pharmaceutical companies, criticized the report as 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,” says Randall Singer, a professor of veterinary science at the University of Minnesota.

Singer notes the limited number of samples in the federal data, 480 samples each of ground turkey, pork chops and ground beef, and chicken breasts, wings and thighs, compared with the huge amount of meat sold in the U.S. “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,” he says.

Many animals grown for meat are fed diets containing antibiotics to promote growth and reduce costs, as well as to prevent and control illness. Public health officials in the U.S. and in Europe, however, are warning that the consumption of meat containing antibiotics contributes to resistance in humans. A growing public awareness of the problem has led to increased sales of antibiotic-free meat.

USDA has confirmed that almost 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in animal agriculture.

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