December 10, 2002
Analysis Of Bacteria Shows Significant Resistance To Important Human Antibiotics
Affected consumers may be sick longer, possibly with more serious illness
YONKERS, NY-In a nationally representative analysis of antibiotic resistance in store-bought chicken, Consumer Reports (CR) tested 484, fresh, whole broilers and found salmonella or campylobacter-the bacteria most likely to give Americans food poisoning-in about half the samples. The study is the largest of its kind known to Consumer Reports.
Ninety percent of the campylobacter bacteria tested from the chicken and 34 percent of the salmonella showed some resistance to one or more antibiotics often used to treat people. The presence of resistant strains in chickens has been linked to feeding them drugs to prevent or reduce sickness and to speed growth.
“As a result, the estimated 1.1 million or more Americans sickened each year by undercooked, tainted chicken, or by food that raw chicken juices have touched, may stay sick longer, possibly with more serious illnesses. Doctors may have to prescribe several antibiotics before finding one that works. And patients may have to pay more to be treated,” says Doug Podolsky, a health writer and Senior Editor at Consumer Reports.
Shoppers bought the chicken for CR’s tests at supermarkets and health-food stores in 25 cities nationwide last spring. Represented in our tests were 4 leading brands (Foster Farms, Perdue, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson), 14 supermarket brands, 9 premium brands (usually from smaller companies, usually more expensive, labeled as raised without antibiotics, and including free-range, and organic brands), and 2 kosher brands.
“These are the first comprehensive tests of chickens CR has done since the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 1998 implementation of its food-safety program known as HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points). In CR’s March 1998 report on chicken-done before HACCP was fully in place-the magazine found contamination in almost three-fourths of the broilers. While our recent tests showed nearly 50 percent contamination-down from our 1998 report-it is evident there are still significant holes in the food-safety net,” says Ellen Klosz, who oversaw the chicken testing and is a Senior Project Leader in Consumers Union’s Foods Department.
Highlights from CR’s tests of chicken contamination include:
· Campylobacter was present in 42 percent of the chickens-down from 63 percent in our 1998 report, salmonella in 12 percent-down from 16 percent in our 1998 report.
· The presence of the 2 bugs on a chicken carcass often didn’t track. Five percent of all chickens had both campylobacter and salmonella; 51 percent had neither.
· Five premium brands had no salmonella. One of those, the free-range Ranger, also had no campylobacter, at least in the 12 samples we tested.
· No major brand was less contaminated than others overall. Pilgrim’s Pride had an exceptionally low incidence of salmonella but, along with Tyson, a higher incidence of campylobacter than most other brands.
Highlights from CR’s tests of antibiotic resistance include:
· In 66 percent of the campylobacter-contaminated chickens tested for antibiotic resistance and 17 percent of the salmonella-contaminated chickens, the bacteria were resistant to tetracycline, an older but still important drug used against germs from pneumonia to chlamydia.
· In 20 percent of campylobacter-contaminated chickens tested for antibiotic resistance, the bacteria were resistant to erythromycin, an option for patients allergic to penicillin and in 19 percent of the salmonella-contaminated chickens, the bacteria were resistant to ampicillin, used against a dozen or more different bacterial infections.
“Although stronger-than-usual or extended doses of antibiotics might eventually kill the bugs in most people, resistant germs can be risky for the very young, the very old, and people with weakened immune systems,” adds Podolsky.
Recommendations for Government Action
Based on CR’s testing and research, the magazine includes the following recommendations:
· The government should require companies to monitor data on the use of antibiotics in food animals.
· Congress should ban sub-therapeutic uses of medically important drugs in poultry and other livestock.
· The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) should extend its food-safety program to include testing for campylobacter in poultry plants, should better train its inspectors to spot deficiencies, and should require speedy fixes.
The January 2003 issue of CR also includes chicken handling and cooking tips for consumers as well as a guide to the labels on chickens shoppers are likely to see in their grocery stores, such as “free-range”, “organic” and “no antibiotics.”