News Round-Up: Food, Foodborne Illness, And Antibiotic Resistance In Food

OK, still catching up. Today: food, foodborne illness, and antibiotic use and resistance in food — lots of news in a multi-item rundown. (Under normal circumstances, I’d give each of these items a post of its own; but since they all happened in the past few weeks, it seems better to note them and move on.)

First, foodborne illness broadly: Two weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its annual report card on food safety and foodborne illness, and the news was not encouraging. The CDC project FoodNet keeps track of illnesses caused by 10 disease organisms transmitted by food (Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora, Listeria, Salmonella, Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coli O157 and non-O157, Shigella, Vibrio, and Yersinia) in seven states plus certain counties in three additional states. The CDC found that, when the 2012 data was compared with the years 2006-2008,  there was no significant change in the occurrence of infections from most of those organisms. Infections from O157 E. coli rose again, after trending slightly down, and infections from two other organisms went up significantly: Campylobacter, carried on chicken, rose 14 percent, and Vibrio, primarily in shellfish, rose 43 percent. With what seems like understatement, the CDC said: “These findings highlight the need to continue to identify and address food safety gaps that can be targeted for action by the food industry and regulatory authorities.”

Next, antibiotic resistance in food. If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ve seen me talk about the annual report issued by the federal government which reveals antibiotic-resistant organisms in people, animals and meat. The report is called NARMS for the surveillance project that produces it, the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, and every year that it has come out, it has reported increasing rates of at least some antibiotic resistant organisms on some foods. I’ve written about it for the last three years. Now the nonprofit Environmental Working Group has done a lengthy analysis of the data from the last NARMS report, titled “Superbugs Invade American Supermarkets.” It should make really striking reading for anyone to whom this issue is new; and even if you’re familiar with the problem, it is a strong addition to the accumulating evidence that farm antibiotic use is making foods a health risk. Excerpting their findings:

  • government tests of raw supermarket meat … detected antibiotic-resistant bacteria in: 81 percent of ground turkey, 69 percent of pork chops, 55 percent of ground beef, 39 percent of chicken breasts, wings and things.
  • 9 percent of raw chicken samples and 10 percent of raw ground turkey sampled from retail supermarkets in 2011 were tainted with a superbug version of Salmonella bacteria.
  • a superbug version of the Campylobacter jejuni microbe was detected on 26 percent of raw chicken pieces. Raw turkey samples contained numerically fewer of these microbes, but 100 percent of those examined were antibiotic resistant.

This EWG report is notable for another reason: The Food and Drug Administration decided to scold the group for it. In a really unusual move, the agency (which oversees the portion of NARMS that deals with retail meat) issued a press release criticizing EWG’s analysis and calling it “inaccurate and alarmist.” The press release was derided by food policy bloggers and analysts; in one stinging reaction, author and NYU professor Marion Nestle said: “The FDA’s current stance on use of animal antibiotics appears to be more about protecting the meat industry than about protecting public health.”

Third: the risks of foodborne illness in specific foods. The Center for Science in the Public Interest released a report April 23 — “Risky Meat: A Field Guide to Meat and Poultry Safety” — that ranked the meats most bought in America by how much risk of foodborne illness consumers run when they buy, cook and eat them. The report is based on CSPI’s analysis of 33,372 cases of foodborne illness over 12 years — 1,714 outbreaks — drawn from the CDC’s Foodborne Outbreak Online Database. The ranking, by organism and number of illnesses: chicken and ground beef were the riskiest foods, and chicken nuggets, ham and sausage the least risky. In the middle ranks: beef (other than ground), steak and turkey were high risk, and barbecue, deli meat, pork and roast beef were medium-risk. From the report:

Importantly, outbreaks linked to meat and poultry have decreased over the period studied. Since 1993, the meat and poultry industry, spurred by stricter regulatory oversight and litigation, has made changes in animal production, slaughter, and processing to reduce illnesses from Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, and other well-known hazards—but every outbreak of preventable illness and deaths shows that more work is needed.

The CSPI report is accompanied online by fact sheets to help consumers understand the different risks from specific types of meat.

Fourth: Antibiotic-resistant risks from one particular food, ground turkey. A special report that will be published in the June issue of Consumer Reportswas released online April 30, and raises worrisome questions about the safety of ground turkey.The magazine and its nonprofit arm, Consumers Union, bought ground turkey in supermarkets around the country, choosing both conventionally raised and organically raised meat. From the story:

… more than half of the packages of raw ground meat and patties tested positive for fecal bacteria. Some samples harbored other germs, including salmonella and staphylococcus aureus, two of the leading causes of foodborne illness in the U.S. Overall, 90 percent of the samples had one or more of the five bacteria for which we tested. Adding to the concern, almost all of the disease-causing organisms in our 257 samples proved resistant to one or more of the antibiotics commonly used to fight them…

Sixty percent of the meat carried E. coli, 15 percent carried staph, and 5 percent carried Salmonella. Among the bacteria that CR’s lab isolated from the meat: 82 out of 155 E. coli isolates were resistant to three or more families of antibiotics, as were 8 out of 39 staph strains found and 8 out of 12 Salmonella. But, the magazines notes, bacteria found on organically raised turkey was much less likely to harbor serious drug resistance. The story adds: “Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, believes
that the FDA should ban all antibiotics in animal production except to treat illness.”

Finally, why care? Because foodborne illness is so widespread, and so potentially deadly. The CDC recently held its annual Epidemic Intelligence Service Conference, which serves as an informal graduation ceremony for members of its disease-detective corps. Among the research presented, there was this little-noticed paper by EIS officer Dr. Von Nguyen, analyzing the impact of foodborne outbreaks which cross state borders. These outbreaks are becoming more common, because food production and distribution has become so complex — but because the victims are so far apart, linking cases together is challenging. Nevertheless, doing the footwork to track foodborne illness across the miles is critical, Nguyen said: “These outbreaks represented only 1 percent of foodborne disease outbreaks over the last decade; however, they accounted for 5 percent of outbreak-related illnesses, 21 percent of hospitalizations, and 26 percent of deaths.”




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