OK, meat eaters, do you want the good news or the bad news first? Hey, I know! I’ll start with the bad news: In a just-released study, Consumer Reports tested 257 samples of ground turkey from supermarkets, and found that virtually every one was contaminated with either fecal bacteria, staph, or salmonella. Even worse, most of the fecal bacteria were resistant to one or more antibiotics important to human medicine.
Clearly, between this study and the Environmental Working Group’s recent report on the high rates of fecal (and antibiotic-resistant) bacteria, it’s fair to conclude that the meat industry is struggling to keep its product safe.
The bit of good news here is that Consumer Reports tested both meat raised with antibiotics and meat raised without them. While meat raised without antibiotics had about the same rates of overall contamination as the industrial alternative, it had far lower levels of antibiotic-resistant strains — and it’s the antibiotic-resistant bugs that should scare you. Infection with them puts you at far greater risk of serious illness or even death if you’re an infant, elderly, or immune-compromised.
The message to consumers is simple: Buying meat raised without antibiotics will reduce your exposure to the nastiest bacteria. Which is a good thing.
There’s a message here for the meat industry, too: Restricting agricultural use of antibiotics would have a big effect on meat safety. Of course, any Danish pig farmer would tell you the same thing. But here at home neither Big Meat nor the government agencies that police it are ready to face that reality.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture certainly understands that regulations surrounding meat safety need reform. In fact, the agency is moving forward with a proposed new regulation for poultry inspections that the administrator of its food safety division declared last year would “further the agency’s transformation to focus solely on public health and help address the challenge we have to reduce foodborne illness.”
Sadly, it would take generous definitions of most of the nouns and verbs in that sentence for it to be accurate. The new USDA regs would actually reduce the number of government inspectors, shifting responsibility for visual inspections to slaughterhouse company employees, while increasing the speed at which the chickens move along the processing line and increasing the number and frequency of chemical disinfecting washes used on the carcasses. Sigh.
It may come as a surprise to learn that virtually all of the chicken you buy at the supermarket has been chemically disinfected, most frequently with chlorine but also with other, more toxic chemicals. It’s no sure fix, of course, since pathogens can hide in nooks and crannies that the sprays, which focus on surface contamination, can’t reach. It also does nothing to address the root causes of how the bacteria got onto the meat in the first place.
The USDA claims [PDF] that its new system is a more science-based approach that relies less on inspectors’ eyes and more on risk assessments of where the pathogens are and how to kill them. That claim is, of course, the subject of some dispute. Food and Water Watch uncovered documents that suggest that slaughterhouses that tried out the new regs actually had higher rates of salmonella contamination than those using the old system.
Nonetheless, the USDA estimates the new system will prevent up to 5,000 cases of foodborne illness annually — all this, while also saving taxpayers $90 million per year and lowering industry costs by just over $250 million per year. But it sure seems like the benefits are flowing the wrong way — that is, more toward industry than consumers (as in more chickens processed per hour and more profit).
One industry-associated food safety expert I spoke to, Michael Doyle of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety, said the industry has relied on chemical washes without necessarily using them appropriately, and that these new regs will help address that shortcoming. That may be. But appropriate use for carcasses may not equal appropriate use for the slaughterhouse workers who, along with the chickens, will be exposed to them.
The Washington Post ran an exposé last week on the increasing health problems those workers are suffering as a result of increased chemical exposure. The article features former USDA inspectors critical of the new meat safety rules, both because the line speeds are now too fast for inspectors to see problems and because of the reliance on chemicals.
And these former inspectors aren’t alone. Lawyer Bill Marler, who represents victims of serious foodborne illnesses and their families, agrees that it’s a misguided approach. “The whole system is flawed,” he told me in an email. As he sees it, the problem isn’t in the particulars of the rules themselves. The problem is that the USDA sets allowable levels for the presence of dangerous bacteria like salmonella or campylobacter on meat. Marler believes that the level should be zero.
“Impossible,” you say. “Bacteria are everywhere!” Well, almost 20 years ago, the USDA set a zero-tolerance policy for the deadly form of E. coli (O157:H7 for those keeping score at home) that caused the fatal Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993. And while that strain still causes problems, especially in produce, we don’t see it as frequently in meat — with one notable 2009 exception — because companies were forced to eliminate it from their facilities. They didn’t like it, they complained about cost, but they mostly succeeded.
Many consumer advocates, including Consumer Reports and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, believe that until the USDA does the same with the newer, deadlier, antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella and other deadly bacteria, no amount of chemical washing will solve the problems with our meat. The USDA has plenty of compelling evidence that attacking the problems at the source — that is, reducing the amount of antibiotics used in meat production — could drastically lower the most dangerous forms of bacterial contamination. But the USDA is too hemmed in by industry to make those changes.
And that’s where you, the consumers, come in. Your role goes beyond practicing good food safety at home and using helpful resources, like the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s new “Risky Meat Guide,” to avoid meat with the highest rates of bacterial contamination.
One of the great food-system success stories in recent years involves the dairy industry’s reluctant abandonment of artificial growth hormones in the face of a virtual revolt by (mostly) mothers of small children. If meat eaters demand meat raised without antibiotics — it’s not significantly more expensive to buy, as it doesn’t have to be organic — the industry will be forced to respond. Producers will have to change the ways they raise animals, which will have the added benefit of lessening the need for repeated chemical disinfection at the slaughterhouse.
That’s better for the animals, for workers, and for consumers — even vegetarians, since antibiotic-resistant bacteria aren’t just on meat anymore.
So, meat eaters. What are you waiting for?
Tom Laskawy is a founder and executive director of the Food & Environment Reporting Network and a contributing writer at Grist covering food and agricultural policy. His writing has also appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, The New York Times, and The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter.
If you live in the Amherst, MA area, you are fortunate to have several sources of safe local meat. Try: