The Last Word on 'Superbugs' in our Meat

Recently, a report emerged in the media which unnecessarily raised concern about the potential for increased foodborne illness.   In fact, according to experts, consumers should be assured that they are making the right food choices and doing the right thing to keep food safe and to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.

Here’s what the experts have to say about antibiotics in animal production in response to a recent report by the Environmental Working Group and their analysis of the NARMS data.

“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,”

-Randall Singer, DVM, PhD, professor of veterinary science at the University of Minnesota.

National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS)

The National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) is a national public health surveillance system that tracks antibiotic resistance in foodborne bacteria. The NARMS program was established in 1996 as a partnership between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). NARMS is comprised of three arms that track resistant bacteria in humans, animals and retail meat. Based on historic data, there have been no discernible trends or patterns found between antibiotic resistance and the numbers reported in each group.

 “We need to put these tests in perspective. It's no surprise that you would find salmonella and Campylobacter and E. coli, but if you look at the numbers, these are low levels and in the case of salmonella, for instance, we are seeing a decrease in multidrug-resistant strains in humans."
- Michael Doyle, PhD, professor of food microbiology, University of Georgia


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provided the last word on this issue. On April 22, the FDA released the following statement:

“Recently, the Environmental Working Group issued a report of its interpretation of the 2011 Retail Meat Annual Report of the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS). While FDA is always concerned when we see antimicrobial resistance, we believe the EWG report oversimplifies the NARMS data and provides misleading conclusions. We do not believe that EWG fully considered important factors that put these results in context.” 

The FDA went on to note, “We believe that it is inaccurate and alarmist to define bacteria resistant to one, or even a few, antimicrobials as “superbugs” if these same bacteria are still treatable by other commonly used antibiotics. This is especially misleading when speaking of bacteria that do not cause foodborne disease.”

Experts, stakeholders and consumers have advocated that farmers should use fewer antibiotics with their livestock.  Mike Doyle believes “the concept of using antibiotics as a \[preventative measure\] with animals is not going to continue.”  In addition, the industry’s shift away from the use of antibiotics for growth promotion at the request of the FDA “provides further reassurance that the food industry is committed to meeting government and customer expectations and to producing meat and poultry products that are as safe as we can make them.”

Putting Risk in Perspective:  Here’s what you need to know:

It is a well-known fact that bacteria can exist in raw meat and poultry.  It is important to know that there are practical steps that everyone can take to ensure meat and poultry are safe to eat.  Everyone should handle food safely to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.

  • Clean – wash surfaces often
  • Separate – don’t cross contaminate
  • Cook – to proper temperatures.  Be certain to use a food thermometer to ensure a safe internal temperature
  • Chill – refrigerate promptly

After all, food safety is a shared responsibility.