Uh Oh. We Just Found Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria in the Worst Place Possible

Officially begin worrying now, North Americans. Something has entered your food supply that threatens true calamity — and there’s not much you can do about it.

You wouldn’t think a Chinese grocery store in Saskatoon, Canada, would be the epicenter triggering so much concern within the medical community, but that’s how it happened. The problem was squid. Well, not the squid so much as what researchers found hiding inside it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced earlier this month that imported squid, most likely from South Korea, contained a bacterium that is resistant to carbapenems — the antibiotics of last resort.

“Carbapenems are a type of antibiotic, and carbapenemases are enzymes that some organisms can produce to render these antibiotics ineffective,” said the CDC in a bulletin released on June 11. “Carbapenem-resistant organisms have been found in the environment and in animals used for food; but in the United States and Canada, they had not been found in food itself—until now.”

Here’s the CDC footstomper: “This finding expands the list of those at risk for carbapenem-resistant infections from a select group of people to the general public.”

If you’re hit with a carbapenem-resistant infection, that means theres no antibiotic left that can help you. Yikes.

How is this Possible?

Maryn McKenna of Wired’s Superbug blog explained the concern well:

The issue isn’t that the bacterium is going to cause a foodborne illness immediately; the bacteria carrying this gene was not a disease-causing variety. Rather, the concern is that the DNA conferring this resistance passes from this bacterium into the vast colony of diverse bacteria that live in your gut for your entire life, becoming incorporated into your gut flora and posing a risk of drug-resistant illness at some future point when the balance of your immune system slips.

So if you eat this squid, or any other affected food, you won’t be clutching your stomach in distress an hour from now. Rather, what you’ve unknowingly done is introduce the worst type of antibiotic-resistant bacteria into your system. It won’t ride back out the next time you go to the bathroom. Rather, it will take up residence inside you, quietly infusing itself into the makeup of all the other bacteria teeming in your gut.

Someday, when you get sick and your immune system is a bit off, infection can take hold. With no antibiotic that works against carbapenem-resistant infections, you could be in serious trouble.

We Found This Problem Only Because We Just Started to Look For It

The World Health Organization (WHO) calls the coming antibiotic resistance crisis a problem that will eclipse the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

“A post-antibiotic era — in which common infections and minor injuries can kill — far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century,” wrote Dr. Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Security, in the foreword to an April 2014 WHO report.

kid in hospital

We’ve worried for decades about overuse of antibiotics. They come at us from two fronts: medical overuse when treating humans and when treating and feeding livestock.

Industrialized factory farms keep great numbers of animals crammed together, often in incredibly dirty conditions. Rather than change this way of doing business, factory farms instead try to combat inevitable animal illness by routinely giving antibiotics to cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys. They even give smaller doses to spur greater growth.

One of the innumerable problems with this scenario is that we eat those animals. When we do, we also eat those antibiotics.

Historically, researchers explored food supply antimicrobial drug resistance only within “major agricultural products,” specifically poultry, beef and pork. Because our diets are now more diverse and our foods come from everywhere, the CDC decided to look more broadly at “niche-market meat products, including imported foods” to see what could be learned. That’s how they came to test that squid in Saskatoon back in January 2014.

What if you go vegetarian or vegan? Can you minimize your risk by not eating meat? Not really, says Madeline Drexler, author of Secret Agents: The Menace of Emerging Infections:

Poultry and livestock aren’t the only creatures being dosed with drugs. Salmon, catfish, and trout on domestic fish farms get antibacterial drugs in the water. Honeybees get antibiotics in their hives. And each year, an estimated 300,000 pounds of antibiotic pesticides drift down on fruit trees and other crops to control or prevent bacterial infections such as fire blight.

Yes, antibiotics are everywhere and we’re eating them. The CDC calls “[t]he global emergence of carbapenemase-producing organisms … a public health emergency.”

Do Scientists See a Ray of Hope?

If there’s any good news here, it’s this: some scientists believe they may have discovered the key to turning off bacteria’s ability to resist antibiotics.

“This is really important because drug-resistant bacteria is a global health problem,” said Professor Changjiang Dong of the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School. “Many bacteria build up an outer defense which is important for their survival and drug resistance. We have found a way to stop that happening.”

Much more work is necessary if we hope to find our way out of this trap we’ve built for ourselves. Let’s hope our world governments heed the urgent call of researchers who need sufficient funding. Many lives hang in the balance.

Photo credit (all images): Thinkstock


Anna Wang
Anna Meng Wang3 years ago


Donna N.
Donna N3 years ago

I see so much hateful and judgmental from some of you. You will find that Koreans do NOT normally eat dogs and cats. You show hatefulness toward people who eat meat, toward doctors who do NOT want to give antibiotics but parents insist.

The operative name of this is CARE2; I think a lot of you forget this. You care ONLY if it is your point of view.
As to antibiotics...there is a place for them, but not for everything single thing. Ear infections in kids are painful, BUT...leave the antibiotics alone. I am 75, my grandfather was a doctor and I was raised by him. I remember when penicillin came out, and then other antibiotics. No one realized then, but soon did, that you did not give them for everything.
Use common sense in your cooking, clean your food off. AND, what many of you forgot...family farms who raised a lot of food..USED MANURE as fertilizer. We cleaned the barn, it went on the field and on my garden. Fresh manure was held to put on the garden after several months to let it break down. My kids were never sick, they played in the fields, they did NOT get antibiotics and all 6 today are very healthy.

Aaron Bouchard
Aaron Bouchard3 years ago

Thank you

sarah jaffe
sarah jaffe3 years ago

welp that's the last time i tongue a raw squid

Arlette King
Arlette King3 years ago

the thought of what to eat is getting pretty scary

Colin Hope
Colin Hope3 years ago

Signed and noted!!

Mostapha Zaher
Mostapha Z3 years ago

@Anteater A : LOL You never know!

Aaron Bouchard
Aaron Bouchard3 years ago

Thank you

Theresa Robinson
Theresa Robinson3 years ago