Drug-Resistant Bacteria on Chicken: It's Everywhere and the Government Can't Help

image: Thousand Robots (CC), Flickr

Two important, linked publications are out today, both carrying the same message: The way we raise poultry in this country is creating an under-appreciated health hazard, and the government structures we depend upon to detect that hazard and protect us from it are failing us.

The two pubs are:

Short version: Independent tests show that multi-drug resistant disease-causing bacteria are widely present on chicken, and the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has insufficient personnel, or legal authority, to change that.

Both these assertions are important, because foodborne illness, and especially drug-resistant foodborne illness, are also under-appreciated — for how serious the disease can be, and how long-lasting the after-effects are. (For more on those: Here’s a piece I wrote for The Atlantic about how drug-resistant bacteria on chicken are causing an epidemic of urinary tract infections, and one for Scientific American about the lifelong cost of foodborne illness.)

It’s worth emphasizing also that we are right now in the middle of an outbreak of Salmonella on chicken that has been going on for about a year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted an update just this morning: 416 people since since last February, in 23 states and Puerto Rico, 39 percent of them hospitalized, linked to a single producer’s brand of chicken.

So, today’s publications. Let’s take Consumer Reports first. (Disclosure: Though there’s no byline, this piece was written by a friend of mine.) The piece is both a survey of the state of knowledge of antibiotic-resistant bacteria on chicken — where they come from and why they are dangerous — and also a report on testing conducted by Consumer Reports on 316 samples of chicken breasts purchased in 26 states last July. Out of the 316, 252 were conventionally raised chicken, and 64 were “no antibiotics,” including 24 labeled “organic.” The organization looked for six different types of bacteria. Their results:

  • Almost all of the chicken carried some bacterial contamination. Ranking by rate, the problematic bacteria were Enterococcus (79.8 percent of the samples), E.coli (65.2 percent), Campylobacter (43 percent), Klebsiella pneumonia (13.6 percent), Salmonella (10.8 percent), and staph (9.2 percent).
  • Almost half (49.7 percent) carried at least one type of bacterium resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics.
  • 11.5 percent of samples carried two or more types of multidrug-resistant bacteria.
  • Among the E. coli found, 17.5 percent were ExPEC (extra-intestinal pathogenic E. coli), the kind responsible for the UTIs (and kidney and blood infections) I discussed in The Atlantic.

Displaying how random your risk of these bacteria may be: When Consumer Reports was buying its chicken samples, the CDC had not yet raised the alarm about this ongoing Salmonella outbreak, which is due to a strain called Heidelberg and has been linked to one poultry producer, Foster Farms. Once the outbreak was made public, the magazine went back to its frozen packages, and discovered that one carried the bar-coding indicating it had been produced at one of the three plants implicated in the outbreak. When they tested that chicken, they discovered it carried the outbreak strain of Salmonella, the one that has made 416 people sick thus far with diagnosed illnesses — but which may, by the CDC’s estimate, actually have sickened 15,000.

The weaknesses in the food-safety system exposed by that outbreak are the subject of the parallel report released by Pew (which also funded some of Consumer Report‘s research). The group chose Salmonella to examine, not just because of the current outbreak — the second one linked to Foster Farms’ chicken — but also because it may be the most costly and destructive foodborne disease, causing more than 1 million illnesses each year, and more hospitalizations and deaths than any other foodborne organism.

They painstakingly document a list of what look like failures in the government response to the outbreak — and then note that, from a strictly legal point of view, the FSIS didn’t do anything actionably wrong. It just lacks the muscle that would allow it to do things better.

Among the problems the Pew food-safety team exposes:

  • Salmonella isn’t an “adulterant” — that is, not an organism whose presence triggers regulatory action. (Unlike, for instance, E. coli O157:H7.) It is considered an “indicator species,” that is, a sign that something in the production process is going wrong.
  • The federal breakpoints for how much Salmonella it takes to indicate something is going wrong are long out of date, based on studies that were made before buying patterns changed and plants speeded up.
  • Salmonella is not a mandatory part of the written HAACP (“hazard analysis and critical-control point”) food-safety planning that meat-processing plants are required to undergo.
  • FSIS only inspects plants for the presence of Salmonella every other year — and it tells plants in advance when its team is coming.
  • FSIS does not have legal authority to shut down a plant whose Salmonella scores repeatedly exceed its standards. It also can’t force a recall of Salmonella-contaminated meat; it can only request that a company do so. (The Food and Drug Administration, which splits food-safety duties with USDA, does have mandatory recall authority over the products it polices — but meat, including poultry, is not among them.)

The Pew report also makes the excellent point — which will be especially important to readers here — that the national monitoring system for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, NARMS, does not collect any source data for the meat it tests. As Consumer Reports did, NARMS finds antibiotic-resistant bacteria on US meat every year — but because there is no source or producer data attached to its samples, there is no way of using those findings to ring an alarm bell over a possible outbreak.

And just to remind, in case we get bogged down in details: There’s no mystery where these antibiotic-resistant bacteria on meat are coming from. As the magazine and the nonprofit say — and as the CDC emphasized in the fall, and I’ve been harping on here for years — the science is clear that injudicious antibiotic use in meat-raising is to blame.

Pew and Consumer Reports both make solid sets of recommendations for patching the many vulnerabilities in food safety that their reports expose: reduce overuse of farm antibiotics, declare Salmonella an adulterant, revise the data standards for the organism, give FSIS the authority it needs to make US food safety less of a joke.

As these publications went public this morning, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) — a public-health microbiologist and longtime champion of protecting antibiotics for critical medical uses — released a statement whose tinge of exasperation is more than deserved. She said:

How many more news reports, outbreaks or deaths must there be before we really crack down on the source of the antibiotic-resistance crisis: the overuse of antibiotics on the farm?…

These studies draw a troubling conclusion: that the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat is more widespread than we thought, and our federal regulatory agencies simply refuse to hold the industry accountable. The failure of our regulatory structure to protect public health is completely unacceptable.

Update: The National Chicken Council has put together a long comment/rebuttal to the Pew and CR reports. Its opening line raises a concern about sample size: “Americans eat about 160 million servings of chicken every single day, and 99.99 percent of those servings are consumed safely.” Of note, it mentions that the FSIS “performance standards” (the breakpoints for the presence of Salmonella, questioned by the Pew report) are to be revised in 2014. But click through for the whole thing.


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