Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria in Poultry

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Superbugs or antibiotic resistant bacteria are a frightening endangerment to human health and antibiotic use in animal feed has been linked to the problem.

The problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria is one of growing concern around the world. Over-prescription of antibiotics in humans has resulted in new resistant strains. However, use of antibiotics in animal husbandry has also been linked to the evolution of these “superbugs.” On Feb. 10, 2011, the CBC announced the results of an investigative report regarding the contamination of supermarket poultry by antibiotic resistant bacteria: “all of the bacteria uncovered during the Marketplace sampling were resistant to at least one antibiotic.

Some of the bacteria found were resistant to six, seven or even eight different types of antibiotics.” As disturbing as this may sound, the existence of bacteria on meat or any food product is in fact to be expected, thus the familiar warnings about handling and proper cooking.

Link Between Antibiotic in Feed and Human Sickness

In October of 2010, the Vancouver Sun reported on a study by the Canadian Integrated Program for Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance. The researchers identified a correlation between antibiotic resistant bacteria (Salmonella Heidelberg) found on chicken and the same resistant strain infecting humans.

They also showed that when Quebec poultry producers temporarily stopped using the drug Ceftiofur, between 2005 and 2006, the cases of human infection decreased, then, rose again when the antibiotic was reintroduced. The researchers commented that Canada has no drug monitoring plan in place; therefore, evaluation of antibiotic impacts is difficult.

Antibiotic Resistant Strains Found in all Poultry

Use of antibiotics has been banned in Europe and in Australia for some time and both regions have research showing both benefits and disadvantages of restricted drug supplemented feed.

The United States was also prepared to introduce a ban but that did not occur. The FDA and Department of Agriculture sponsored a University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine study comparing antibiotic-free farm raised chickens to those raised in a regulated laboratory environment. Both groups were found to have high levels of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Research such as this suggests that a simple ban on antibiotics is unlikely to resolve the issue.

Antibiotics Used to Produce Safer Food

The Chicken Farmers of Canada website describes why antibiotics are used. They explain that occasional use of antibiotics in feed helps protect the flock from disease and that healthy birds make safer food.

Bacteria cannot be eliminated as they can occur anyplace including water, feed, processing plants and supermarket counters. Information on this site also reinforces the message that correct food handling is the best precaution. Chicken internal cooking temperature should always be a minimum 165°F (74°C). Information regarding cleaning food surfaces, proper refrigeration and storage is also provided.

Food Handling is the Best Protection

The issue of antibiotic resistant bacteria is worrisome; however, the problem cannot be resolved by an outright ban of drugs used to maintain health in livestock. Certainly better government monitoring of usage is essential for collection and analysis of data.

The natural reaction of disgust is inevitable, when we are told that our food is covered with bacteria. However we need to realize that these organisms are ubiquitous and many of them are important to our health, by improving our immunity or digesting food for example. Pathogenic bacteria is also found everywhere including our food and our best protection is diligence in storage, handling and cooking of all edibles.

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