One of the most concerning developments in medicine is the emergence of bacterial super-resistance—resistance not just to one class of drugs, like penicillin, but to multiple classes of drugs (so-called multi-drug resistance). In the 2013 Retail Meat Report, the FDA found that more than a quarter of the Salmonella contaminating retail chicken breast were resistant to not one but five or more different classes of antibiotic treatment drugs.
Throughout history there has been a continual battle between humans and pathogens. For the last half century, this battle has taken the form of bugs versus drugs. When we developed penicillin, the U.S. Surgeon General declared, “The war against infectious diseases has been won.” However, the euphoria over the potential conquest of infectious diseases was short lived.
In response to our offensive, bacteria developed an enzyme that ate penicillin for breakfast. In fact, bacteria can excrete such large quantities of the enzyme that they can destroy the drug before it even comes into contact. So we developed a drug that blocks the penicillin-eating enzyme. That’s why you may see two drug names on an antibiotic like Augmentin—one is the actual antibiotic (amoxicillin), and the other is a drug that blocks the enzyme the bacteria tries to use to block the antibiotic (clavulanate). But the bacteria outsmarted us again by developing a blocker blocking blocker—and so it goes back and forth. However hard we try and however clever we are, there is no question that organisms that have “been around for three billion years, and have adapted to survive under the most extreme conditions, will always overcome whatever we decide to throw at them.”
So we went from first generation antibiotics, to second generation antibiotics, to third generation antibiotics. We now have bacteria that have evolved the capacity to survive our big-gun third generation cephalosporins like ceftriaxone, which is what we rely on to treat life-threatening Salmonella infections in children.
Where are these super-duper-superbugs found? In one study, “almost 90% were isolated from chicken carcasses or retail chicken meat.”
But what if we only ate antibiotic-free organic chicken? In the first such study ever published, researchers compared multidrug-resistant bacteria in organic and conventional retail chicken meat. All of the conventional chicken samples were contaminated; however, the majority (84%) of organic chicken meat samples was also contaminated. So 100% versus 84%. Organic is definitely better, but odds are we could still be buying something that could make our family sick.
Where do these antibiotic resistant bacteria come from if organic producers are not using antibiotics? A possible explanation is that day-old chicks come from the hatcheries already infected with these bacteria before they arrive at the farms. Or, they could become contaminated after they leave the farm in the slaughter plant. Organic chickens and conventionally raised chickens are typically all slaughtered at the same plants, so there may be cross-contamination between carcasses. Finally, factory farms are dumping antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria-laden chicken manure out into the environment. Researchers can pick up antibiotic-resistant genes right out of the soil around factory farms. So even meat raised without antibiotics may be contaminated with multi-drug resistant bacteria.
In a cover story in which Consumer Reports urged retailers to stop selling meat produced with antibiotics, the researchers noted some store employee confusion, though on second thought maybe the employees weren’t so confused after all: “An assistant store manager at one grocery store, when asked by a shopper for meats raised without antibiotics, responded, ‘Wait, you mean like veggie burgers?’”
I addressed this issue previously in video such as:
- Past the Age of Miracles: Facing a Post-Antibiotic Age
- Lowering Dietary Antibiotic Intake
- More Antibiotics In White Meat or Dark Meat?
Michael Greger, M.D.