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Hidden Dangers of the Meat Industry (Part 2)

Published: May 4, 2011

A new Louisiana State University study suggests that about half of our meat has antibiotic resistant Staph Aureus (SA) in it. What does that mean? What can and should be done about it?

While it remains to be proven that the antibiotics disappearing down the gullets of animals raised for slaughter directly leads to drug resistant SA getting onto their meat (and our kitchens), it is very difficult to think otherwise, considering the biology of the situation. Meat is not sterile unless it’s inside a can (or has been irradiated). It has bacteria on its surface. Workers in meat processing plants are bound to carry SOME bacteria from what they touch, and if what they touch comes from the inside the animal chances are they will have strains, including SA that have evolved to be resistant to antibiotics.

Feeding the animals all those antibiotics produces bacteria in the feedlot and slaughterhouse environments that are resistant to those drugs.

Certain types of bacteria cause food-borne disease so the USDA tests for them. Staph has never been one of them however, as it has not been thought to be a problem. When meat is cooked the bacteria on the surface is wiped out. Here the threat of SA case comes not so much from eating the meat, but from contact with the skin during preparation.

All cooks know that raw meat needs to be treated carefully. Knives used to cut meat should not then be used on foods not destined to be cooked. Bacteria from the meat could then avoid the sterilizing process of cooking. Surfaces in the kitchen need to be zealously cleaned. Bring home meat with MRSA on it and you have stacked the deck against yourself. The LSU study suggests that we are doing this with perhaps a quarter of our meats.

These tough, resistant staph bugs will almost inevitably contaminate a kitchen. Press infected ground beef into hamburger patties with your bare hands and you’ve now put those resistant staph bacteria onto your skin. If that SA leads to infection (as it does at times) the physician’s job of treating it is now tougher. The punch line here – this whole process needs a re-think.

Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness as the bacteria that cause disease evolve resistance. Doctors try to conserve their use for this reason. Industrial meat production operations use 70% of the antibiotics produced in America simply to boost the growth rates of animals being fed these abnormal corn diets in overcrowded conditions. This must stop.

This method produces relatively inexpensive meat, but it also generates bacteria that are very hard to treat then they cause problems. The meat industry has refused to respond to demands that the practice stop.

The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act is languishing in Congress thanks to industry lobbying. While these meat companies can make more money by keeping costs down (while consumers get cheaper protein) an unintended consequence of these giant feedlot operations is increased production and spread of bacteria that harm our health. In some instances antibiotic resistant SA can kill.

Candidate Obama ran in support of an antibiotic ban. He has done little to address this problem as president.

The squandering of the effectiveness of antibiotics for short term gain should not remain acceptable. As consumers, we should demand that the practice stop.

As an aside: in college I once heard a vegetarian complaining about the waste of human food by the raising of cattle. When I pointed out that cows eat grass which people do not, he countered with the reality that American grain-fed feedlots use 10 pounds of edible grain to produce an extra pound of beef. Considering the toll cattle are taking on the worlds forests and ecosystems (and the health threat that represents to the world) folks not quite ready to go vegetarian should at least consider eating only grass-fed beef.

Cattle not fed in feedlots get antibiotics only if appropriate, and they do not get shots of female hormones to induce water retention just before slaughter. And yes that is why it is done – water retention – not muscle growth. The Europeans don’t want hormones added to their beef, and I don’t either.
The hormone issue (and craziness of feeding salmon with cheap corn) we must leave for another day.

In the meantime write your Congressperson to demand that The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act gets the support it needs.