C. difficile Superbugs in Meat is on the Rise

Clostridium difficile is one of our most urgent bacterial threats, sickening a quarter million Americans every year and killing thousands at the cost of a billion dollars a year, and itís on the rise.

Although uncomplicated cases have been traditionally managed with powerful antibiotics, recent reports suggest that hypervirulent strains are increasingly resistant to medical management. Surgeons need to come in and remove the colon entirely to save lives, although the surgery is so risky that the operation alone may kill us half the time. And thereís been a rise in the percentage of cases that end up under the knife, which could be a marker of the emergence of these hypervirulent strains.

Historically, most cases appeared in hospitals, but a landmark study published in the New England Journal found that only about a third of cases could be linked to contact with an infected patient. Another potential source is our food supply.

In the U.S., the frequency of contamination of retail chicken has been documented to be up to one in six packages off of store shelves. Pig-derived C. diff, however, have garnered the greatest attention from public health personnel, because the same human strain thatís increasingly emerging in the community outside of hospitals is the major strain among pigs.

Since the turn of the century, C. diff is increasingly being reported as a major cause of intestinal infections in piglets. C. diff is now one of the most common causes of intestinal infections in baby piglets in the U.S.

Particular attention has been paid to pigs because of high rates of C. diff shedding into their waste, which can lead to the contamination of retail pork. The U.S. has the highest levels of C. diff meat contamination so far tested anywhere in the world.

Carcass contamination by gut contents at slaughter probably contributes most to the presence of C. diff in meat and meat products. But why is the situation so much worst in the U.S.? Slaughter techniques differ from country-to-country, with those in the United States being called more of the ďquick and dirtyĒ variety.

Colonization or contamination of pigs by superbugs such as C. difficile and MRSA at the farm production level may be more important, though, than at the slaughterhouse level. One of the reasons sows and their piglets may have such high rates of C. diff is because of cross-contamination of feces in the farrowing crate, which are these narrow metal cages that mother pigs are kept in while their piglets are nursing.

But canít you just follow food safety guidelines and cook the meat through? Unfortunately current food safety guidelines are ineffective against C. difficile. To date, most food safety guidelines say cook to an internal temperature as low as 63 degrees Celsius, which is the official USDA recommendation for pork, but recent studies show that these C. diff spores can survive extended heating at 71o. Therefore, the guidelines should be raised to take this potentially killer infection into account.

The problem is that sources of C. diff food contamination might include not only fecal contamination on the meat, but transfer of spores from the gut into the actual muscles of the animal, inside the meat. Clostridia bacteria like C. diff comprise one of the main groups of bacteria involved in natural carcass degradation, and so by colonizing muscle tissue before death, C. diff can not only transmit to new hosts that eat the muscles, like us, but give them a head start on carcass break down.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you havenít yet, you can subscribe to my free videos†here†and watch my live year-in-review presentations†Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death,†More Than an Apple a Day,†From Table to Able, and†Food as Medicine.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jan S.
Jan S1 years ago

considering the biggest pig producer in the US is owned by the chinese and country of origin isn't allowed, do we really know what we're eating in America? Seriously, try to find a local farmer for your food needs.

Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Adrian M.
Adrian M1 years ago

There are ridiculous people posting here that they are vegan, so they won

Adrian M.
Adrian M1 years ago

I'm astonished to read "vegan comments", where people think they are safe because they don't eat meat. Ridiculous! Clostridium difficile is in the soil, in the vegetables grown in the soil, in the feces of birds, in storing compartments of food markets, in the hands of contaminated people, everywhere in hospitals, in your shoes, in public spaces (subway, waiting rooms, etc.).
Meat is asseptic before being cut, if the animal was healthy when killed.
So, no, you are not safe because you don't eat meat.

Natasha very busy
Past Member 1 years ago

No worries here--don't eat meat.

ERIKA SOMLAI1 years ago

thank you for sharing this

Rhonda B.
.1 years ago


sandy Gardner
sandy Gardner1 years ago


Marie W.
Marie W1 years ago

Thanks to factory farms- everything is contaminated.