Superbugs in Conventional Vs. Organic Chicken

Image Credit: Chilanga Cement / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Superbugs on Retail Chicken

One of the most concerning developments in medicine is the emergence of bacterial super-resistance—resistance not just to one class of drugs, like penicillin, but to multiple classes of drugs (so-called multi-drug resistance). In the 2013 Retail Meat Report, the FDA found that more than a quarter of the Salmonella contaminating retail chicken breast were resistant to not one but five or more different classes of antibiotic treatment drugs.

Throughout history there has been a continual battle between humans and pathogens. For the last half century, this battle has taken the form of bugs versus drugs. When we developed penicillin, the U.S. Surgeon General declared, “The war against infectious diseases has been won.” However, the euphoria over the potential conquest of infectious diseases was short lived.

In response to our offensive, bacteria developed an enzyme that ate penicillin for breakfast. In fact, bacteria can excrete such large quantities of the enzyme that they can destroy the drug before it even comes into contact. So we developed a drug that blocks the penicillin-eating enzyme. That’s why you may see two drug names on an antibiotic like Augmentin—one is the actual antibiotic (amoxicillin), and the other is a drug that blocks the enzyme the bacteria tries to use to block the antibiotic (clavulanate). But the bacteria outsmarted us again by developing a blocker blocking blocker—and so it goes back and forth. However hard we try and however clever we are, there is no question that organisms that have “been around for three billion years, and have adapted to survive under the most extreme conditions, will always overcome whatever we decide to throw at them.”

So we went from first generation antibiotics, to second generation antibiotics, to third generation antibiotics. We now have bacteria that have evolved the capacity to survive our big-gun third generation cephalosporins like ceftriaxone, which is what we rely on to treat life-threatening Salmonella infections in children.

Where are these super-duper-superbugs found? According to one study profiled in my video, Superbugs in Conventional vs. Organic Chicken, “almost 90% were isolated from chicken carcasses or retail chicken meat.”

But what if we only ate antibiotic-free organic chicken? In the first such study ever published, researchers compared multidrug-resistant bacteria in organic and conventional retail chicken meat. All of the conventional chicken samples were contaminated; however, the majority (84%) of organic chicken meat samples was also contaminated. So 100% versus 84%. Organic is definitely better, but odds are we could still be buying something that could make our family sick.

Where do these antibiotic resistant bacteria come from if organic producers are not using antibiotics? A possible explanation is that day-old chicks come from the hatcheries already infected with these bacteria before they arrive at the farms. Or, they could become contaminated after they leave the farm in the slaughter plant. Organic chickens and conventionally raised chickens are typically all slaughtered at the same plants, so there may be cross-contamination between carcasses. Finally, factory farms are dumping antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria-laden chicken manure out into the environment. Researchers can pick up antibiotic-resistant genes right out of the soil around factory farms. So even meat raised without antibiotics may be contaminated with multi-drug resistant bacteria.

In a cover story in which Consumer Reports urged retailers to stop selling meat produced with antibiotics, the researchers noted some store employee confusion: “An assistant store manager at one grocery store, when asked by a shopper for meats raised without antibiotics, responded, ‘Wait, you mean like veggie burgers?’” On second thought maybe the employees weren’t so confused after all.

I addressed this issue previously in videos such as:

Isn’t it illegal to sell meat contaminated with dangerous bacteria? Unfortunately no. See why in my video Salmonella in Chicken & Turkey: Deadly But Not Illegal. Reminds me of the case I wrote about in Supreme Court case: meat industry sues to keep downed animals in food supply.

-Michael Greger, M.D

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.


Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.

17 responses to “Superbugs on Retail Chicken

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  1. Dr. Greger, Please see the Jan 17th New Yorker magazine cartoon on page 20. A man is eating a hamburger & fries in a diner. A man in a white lab coat holding a clipboard sits on a nearby stool. The man, lifting his hamburger, says to the doctor/researcher: “If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather eat this NOT knowing what the latest science suggests.” I’d rather know. So thanks for providing the latest scientific research & education. I still think you deserve a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award because the unexamined meal might NOT be worth eating.

    1. Thanks for the tip on the cartoon… I’m always looking for good ones to work into my presentations to health care professionals and lay groups. In my experience most patients are open in being exposed to knowledge but that doesn’t necessarily lead to change in behavior. One Australian study showed that 52% of participants had not heard of a PBD… they classified them as “Pre-contemplative”… I see my job to move them along to the “Contemplative” stage of change… of course an exam room or class is a different environment than a diner. The next stages for those interested are… Planning, Action, Maintenance. The genius of this site is that it is a great commercial free way to move folks to Pre-contemplation to Contemplation stage. Of course for those who follow the blogs and comments folks adapt change at different rates and for different reasons. Keep tuned and thanks again for the tip.

  2. Its funny that time scale of 3 billion years gets mentioned. That is actually not the sort of time that is the big factor.

    Bacteria live on a different time scale from us.
    They splice of at rates of 20 min to a few hours, and every split might have the mutation that proves protective.
    They pack up to half a million generations in 1 of ours.

    In human relativity that would mean 12,5 million years to adapt to that nasty new medicine or chemical.
    If anything bacteria are very poor adapters if one looks at it like that.

    I mean look at what we did in half that time:

  3. My gut flora was a mess after taking a cephalosporin. Research on probiotics is weak and biased. I ended up eating lots of raw vegetables, and fermented cabbage. Three days later, my gas and discomfort after eating my favorite foods (legumes) was gone.

  4. As a vegan I have no real concern about getting a super bug from chicken, or any other meat. However the fact that these super bugs are loose and free to roam, they obviously pose a serious heath threat to everyone. I’ve been a fan of using nutrition and natural treatment as opposed to drugs for many years.

    The day may arrive, and sooner than we might expect, when a plague created by some mutated virus will sweep across the world, entirely resistant to any treatment. On those who actually can fight this off, without medical intervention will survive long enough to reproduce and carry on the species.

    These are the folks, who, like the very adaptable super bacteria mentioned, evolved some natural means of fighting off viral infection. First principles at work, only the strong shall survive.

  5. Bacteria are everywhere not only in chicken but just everywhere (any food, water, air etc.). And the only real thing that can protect us is our immunity however banal it may sounds. So we again should go to the basics: nutrition, sleep, physical activities and stress managment. I doubt there ever will be a better way.

    1. Not really, apart from the fact that they can spread out from the body and infect other hosts (but they already do that following other ways).

      The “best” parasite is the one that is symptom free for the host.

  6. How can we find independent farmers to buy live chickens from n our area . We need to get organic natural raised chicken. Other countries sell live chickens at farmers markets. Why cant we do the same here? Boycott the big producers. Until they raise chickens the natural way instead of cage raised. Either that or get laws n place to outlaw cage raised animals. Its cruel and animal abuse. They are not fit for human consumption anyway. We have those two choices.

    1. Chicken would be a bad idea even if “organic”.

      Check the videos here:

      And yikes, living chicken to be killed at home..?

      No matter how you would put it, the whole thing is animal cruelty, and for not good reason, the only thing you get from eating them, is to be a lot more prone to disease, and contributing directly to arteriosclerosis.

  7. Broilers and broiler meat products are highly contaminated with multiresistent Escherichia coli and are considered to be a source for human infections. Both transmission from bird to bird and transmission from bird to offspring might play a role in the presence of these strains in broilers. The percentage of infected birds at Dutch broiler farms increased within the first week from 0–24% to 96–100% independent of the use of antibiotics and stayed 100% until slaughter.

    Much of the global broiler chicken population is hatched and processed in as few as six weeks, dramatically multiplying the annual number of new potential zoonotic hosts. Every year 45 billion chickens pass through the world, along with 1 billion pigs, which may have contact with an estimated 50 billion great reservoir of waterfowl, like ducks, geese and swans. Never before has the avian influenza A virus had so many potential “stepping stones” from which to choose.

    Broiler chickens have been selectively bred for rapid growth to market weight. In 1920, a chicken reached 1 kg in 16 weeks, but today’s broiler chicken strains may now reach 2.6 kg, a size large enough for slaughter, in only 6 weeks. Daily growth rates have increased from 25 g to 100 g in the past 50 years — an increase of more than 300%. Genetic selection is so intense that the age by which broiler chickens reach market weight and are slaughtered has decreased by as much as one day every year. Ongoing selection for rapid growth is a severe welfare problem as it has resulted in poor bone health, leg disorders including deformities, lameness, tibial dyschondroplasia (TD), and ruptured tendons, and has been correlated with metabolic disorders such as ascites and sudden death syndrome. Heavier broilers (>2400 g) are more likely to be lame. In some cases birds become completely unable to walk.

  8. An interesting side note to this article: I helped lead a systematic literature review (currently writing manuscript for publication) to determine the connection between antibiotic use on farms to the emerging resistant bacteria found in humans. One finding in our search was that although organic chicken had nearly as much bacteria, conventional chicken had more resistant bacteria. There are also so many factors at play with the spread of resistant bacteria – unfortunately, its not as simple as completely eliminating the use of antibiotics from all farms. Hopefully, with the President’s new plan to combat resistance (, we will start to have better tracking systems where we can follow super-bug sickness in the hospital all the way back to its original source (food, farm animal, pet, wildlife, etc). Then we can make a more definitive conclusion as to how resistant bacteria is emerging and spreading, and what we can do to control it.

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