When you buy meat at the supermarket, you generally assume that what you’re getting is safe. But a disturbing new report from the Environmental Working Group has found that might not be the case.
For the report, the organization analyzed recent data from federal scientists on supermarket meat and found antibiotic-resistant bacteria (aka “superbugs”) in nearly 80 percent of those meats. The bacteria were resistant to at least one of 14 antibiotics that they were tested for by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, a federal public health organization.
Researchers specifically found drug-resistant bacteria on 79 percent of ground turkey, 71 percent of pork chops, 62 percent of ground beef, and 36 percent of chicken breasts, wings, and thighs.
“You should be very concerned about this,” Dawn Undurraga, a nutritionist for the Working Group and author of the report, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The World Health Organization calls this a serious threat to public health.”
It sounds bad, and it is, according to infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. “This is something that most infectious disease doctors have known for a while,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “But the problem has only gotten worse.”
Uncooked meat generally has some kind of bacteria on it, which is why it’s recommended that you cook it well before eating it and follow proper food safety practices, Adalja points out. But food-safety errors are the biggest concern, Undurraga says. “Not everyone is supervigilant about food safety,” she says, noting that plenty of people will defrost chicken in their fridge above their lettuce (a practice that increases the risk that bacteria from the meat will end up in your produce) or let kids ride in their grocery cart next to meat (a no-no, since children can touch the meat or be infected with bacteria that can seep out onto surfaces they’ll touch).
“It’s the food-safety errors that can get people sick,” she says.
It’s worth pointing out that your risk of contracting an illness from antibiotic-resistant bacteria from grocery store meat isn’t any greater than your risk of getting one from “regular” bacteria, Adalja says — but you may get an infection that is harder to treat if you do get sick. That scenario especially troubling for vulnerable populations, such as children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people who are immunocompromised, Undurraga says.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria usually gets into meat when farmers use antibiotics in their animals to quickly increase their weight gain, Adalja says.
“It’s a major societal problem because it fosters the bacteria that are present in these animals becoming antibiotic resistant,” he says. Many companies are now offering organic meats and those raised without antibiotics, which can help protect you from coming into contact with these superbugs, Adalja says. Buying these meats can also encourage farmers who do use antibiotics on their animals to stop the practice. “Farmers will stop using antibiotics when consumers stop buying” the meat, he says.