The Superbacteria are in the Beef … the Chicken, the Pork, and so on ….

Question: What’s wrong with feeding antibiotics to our food animals in order to make them grow quicker? Is it that:

(a) Antibiotic residue, i.e. some of the drug itself, gets into the meat?


(b) Superbacteria are created – i.e. bacteria resistant to antibiotics –  and they get into the meat?

Answer: (b). This chart from the US Centers for Disease Control lays it out nicely:


Bugs in the beef 3


The issue is ripe because a major industrial supplier of chicken in the US, Sanderson Farms, is waging an ad campaign that contends: those who claim they’re raising chickens without antibiotics are saying so only as a marketing gimmick, and; the real issue isn’t superbacteria in the meat, it’s antibiotic residue in the meat, and even that doesn’t pose a significant threat.

In response, the National Resources Defense Council posted a hot blog last month that’s being promoted by the science crowd. The tellingly-named piece, “Sanderson Farms: Spreading Deception and Antibiotic Resistance,” levels the charge that the company’s advertising is “… a blatant and unacceptable deception … [that tries] to divert the conversation from the grave and proven threat caused by drug-resistant bacterial contamination in food and the environment.”

The NRDC spells out what that “grave and proven threat” is. Notice that it’s consistent with what the CDC says, above (emphasis in original):


Antibiotic residues in meat is not the issue here. The real problem that has alarmed health experts around the globe is the proliferation of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Routine antibiotic use breeds antibiotic resistant bacteria that can leave the farm on the chicken manure (that is typically trucked away and applied to cropland), on colonized workers, on vented air blasted out of poultry houses or in the soil or water, and on the meat itself. Bacteria escaping via these pathways spread in our communities and environment, and can even share the genetic traits which confer antibiotic resistance with other bacteria, further spreading antibiotic resistance.


When superbacteria make us sick it means our illness is harder to treat. It means you’re looking at such things as a longer hospital stay, multiple readmissions, the need for Intensive Care, and/or surgery. This happens to over 2 million Americans a year. Even worse, sometimes we can’t be treated at all – at least 23,000 people die each year in the US because they’ve contracted superbacteria.

In the meantime, we have to resort to self-help: use separate cutting boards for meat & vegetables, wash the bacteria off the meat & vegetables before eating and, crucially, make sure to cook the meat at the proper temperature, to destroy the bacteria that’s embedded within. Cooking temps & more are listed in this helpful page from the CDC.


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