Superbugs in Conventional vs. Organic Chicken

Superbugs in Conventional vs. Organic Chicken
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The level of multidrug antibiotic-resistant bacteria contamination is compared between meat from animals raised conventionally, and certified organic meat from animals raised without being fed antibiotics.

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

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

Throughout history, there’s been a continual battle between humans and pathogens. For the last half century, that battle has taken the form of bugs versus drugs. First, we developed penicillin, and 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, bacteria developed an enzyme that ate penicillin for breakfast. Literally, an enzyme that breaks down penicillin, called penicillinase. In fact, they can excrete large quantities of the enzyme, and so, can destroy the drug before it even comes into contact.

Okay; so, we developed a drug that blocks the penicillin-eating enzyme. That’s why sometimes you see two drug names— one is the antibiotic, and the other is a drug that blocks the enzyme the bacteria uses to block the antibiotic.

But, the bacteria outsmarted us again, 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 3 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. But now, we have bacteria that 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? “Almost 90%…were isolated from chicken carcasses, or retail chicken meat.”

But, what if we only eat no-antibiotic-added organic chicken? A comparison of these multidrug-resistant bacteria in organic and conventional retail chicken meat. The first such study ever published. All of the conventional chicken samples were contaminated. “However, the majority (84%) of organic chicken meat samples [were] also contaminated.” So, 100% versus 84%. Organic is definitely better, but odds are we’d still be buying something that could make our family sick.

But where do these antibiotic-resistant bacteria come from, if they’re not using antibiotics on organic farms? A possible explanation is that the day-old chicks come from the hatcheries are already infected before they arrive. Or, they can become contaminated after they leave, in the slaughter plant. Organic chickens and conventionally raised chickens are typically all slaughtered in the same slaughterhouses, so there may be cross-contamination between carcasses. And finally, factory farms are dumping antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria-laden chicken manure out into the environment. You can pick up antibiotic-resistant genes right out of the soil around factory farms. So, even meat raised without antibiotics may be contaminated with multidrug-resistant bacteria.

In a cover story in which Consumer Reports urged retailers to stop selling meat produced with antibiotics, they noted some store employee confusion, though maybe they were not so confused after all. “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?'”

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Nottingham Vet School via flickr and Jacopo Werther via Wikimedia. Thanks to Ellen Reid for her image-finding expertise, and Jeff Thomas for his Keynote help.

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

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

Throughout history, there’s been a continual battle between humans and pathogens. For the last half century, that battle has taken the form of bugs versus drugs. First, we developed penicillin, and 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, bacteria developed an enzyme that ate penicillin for breakfast. Literally, an enzyme that breaks down penicillin, called penicillinase. In fact, they can excrete large quantities of the enzyme, and so, can destroy the drug before it even comes into contact.

Okay; so, we developed a drug that blocks the penicillin-eating enzyme. That’s why sometimes you see two drug names— one is the antibiotic, and the other is a drug that blocks the enzyme the bacteria uses to block the antibiotic.

But, the bacteria outsmarted us again, 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 3 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. But now, we have bacteria that 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? “Almost 90%…were isolated from chicken carcasses, or retail chicken meat.”

But, what if we only eat no-antibiotic-added organic chicken? A comparison of these multidrug-resistant bacteria in organic and conventional retail chicken meat. The first such study ever published. All of the conventional chicken samples were contaminated. “However, the majority (84%) of organic chicken meat samples [were] also contaminated.” So, 100% versus 84%. Organic is definitely better, but odds are we’d still be buying something that could make our family sick.

But where do these antibiotic-resistant bacteria come from, if they’re not using antibiotics on organic farms? A possible explanation is that the day-old chicks come from the hatcheries are already infected before they arrive. Or, they can become contaminated after they leave, in the slaughter plant. Organic chickens and conventionally raised chickens are typically all slaughtered in the same slaughterhouses, so there may be cross-contamination between carcasses. And finally, factory farms are dumping antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria-laden chicken manure out into the environment. You can pick up antibiotic-resistant genes right out of the soil around factory farms. So, even meat raised without antibiotics may be contaminated with multidrug-resistant bacteria.

In a cover story in which Consumer Reports urged retailers to stop selling meat produced with antibiotics, they noted some store employee confusion, though maybe they were not so confused after all. “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?'”

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Nottingham Vet School via flickr and Jacopo Werther via Wikimedia. Thanks to Ellen Reid for her image-finding expertise, and Jeff Thomas for his Keynote help.

Doctor's Note

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 my blog post, Supreme Court case: meat industry sues to keep downed animals in food supply.

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

19 responses to “Superbugs in Conventional vs. Organic Chicken

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  1. I am hoping someone can tell me if the resveratrol in red grapes is degraded or eliminated when cooking? My friends tell me that the pasteurized organic grape juice I sometimes drink has no resveratrol remaining due to the heat of pasteurization. For some reason I am a bit skeptical.




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    1. Your friends are correct; little or no resveratrol remains after pasteurization. But the point is moot since grape juice has such a small amount in it to begin with. To get the amount that Sinclair used in his experiments would require you to drink hundreds of bottles of wine a day. What a headache you’d have!




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    2. (continued from below) Don’t think you need to take 250mg of resveratrol to get the benefits found in experiments. The drug worked by activating the SIRT1 gene. You can get the same effect by intermittent fasting. There are two versions of this regimen. You can either limit your calorie intake to 500 calories a day and then eat as much as you wish on alternate days (and probably loose quite a bit of weight) or you can simply eat each day during an eight hour window, say from noon to eight. One gets used to skipping breakfast, but not to alternate day dieting. Of course, if you’re already on a low fat diet, you may not get additional benefits from resveratrol at all.




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      1. Interesting information, Phil. I recently instituted an 8-hour feeding window regimen noting your reference in the comment above (after initially hearing of the concept in the Perfect Health Diet book). It seems to be going just fine, but I would love to see some more information on the benefits, effects, etc. The effect you reference seems interesting, but previously unknown to me. Might you know of any information sources? Thanks.




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      2. When you said “if you’re already on a low fat diet, you may not get additional benefits from resveratrol at all.” What does low fat have to do with resveratrol? This is new to me.




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      3. can’t see how one would not receive benefits from resveratrol if on a low fat diet. It is true that a diet high in omega-6, transfats and hyrdrogenated fats increases inflammation and free-radical damage. Resveratrol may help to reduce some of the damage. But, people not eatting as much damaging fat can also benefit. Personally, I like to make sure I have adequate fat in my diet – minus 2 of the damaging ones that I mentioned and higher omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.




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  2. “Use of antibacterial agents creates selective pressure for the emergence of resistant strains.” FC Tenover, …. so remove the selective pressure (i.e. use antibiotics sensibly) and the baddies revert, no more superbugs. Food science marches on.




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  3. So interesting. Thanks Dr. Greger!

    It frustrating that the United States hasn’t taken strong leadership on this. Everyone is so afraid of Big Agribusiness.

    It would be great to see the data on organic vs conventional vs free range on more than just Beta lactamase stuff.




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  4. Are you going to cover “superbugs” in vegetables too?

    For a real world perspective, chicken for example is usually eaten cooked – maybe not perfectly handled, but cooked nonetheless. Many contaminated vegetables on other hand are often eaten raw. Thus the actual risk of exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria may be higher from vegetables or fruit than from meat.

    “Overall, consumption of raw vegetables represents a route of human exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria and resistance determinants naturally present in soil.”

    Appl Environ Microbiol. 2013 Sep;79(18):5701-9.
    doi: 10.1128/AEM.01682-13




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  5. good reason to buy all food from farmers we know or grow our own. The organic vegetable farms are also contaminated by manure run-off from factory farms.




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  6. Hey Dr. Greger! Speaking to a bunch off my friends they believe all of the things I am telling them about the harm that meat causes us, only pertains to meat from conventional or factory farms–and not pasture-raised or organic cattle farms for instance. Is there any science looking specifically at meat eaters who eat animal products specifically from these sort of organic natural farms –vs. vegans? Or is it unneeded because we have nailed which elements of meat are harmful to us, and they are consistently in both organic and conventional meat farms?




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    1. Hi Nick,
      Excellent question, and one I hear all the time. One thing that comes to mind is the damaging effects of heme vs non-heme iron (heme iron is found in meat, so organic/non-organic is not a factor) and is discussed in this excellent video: http://nutritionfacts.org/video/the-safety-of-heme-vs-non-heme-iron/
      I’d certainly like to see health outcome studies comparing organic/pasture-raised meat consumers vs factory farm meat consumers; however, it might be hard to control for confounding variables, since organic meat consumers likely have other healthy behaviors compared to non-organic meat consumers.




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    2. Nick: David gave a great reply. I have some other factors to consider: animal protein (known to promote IGF-1 growth hormone among other problems), saturated fat combined with cholesterol (which may be less in some animals, but would still be there), and even contamination (which through the process of bioaccumulation will be more in organic flesh than say organic beans). You can learn more about all of these ideas here on NutritionFacts. And I’m sure I’m missing some.
      .
      In other words, you are right when we say that we know enough about which elements of meat are harmful to us and we know enough about which elements of plants are healthful to us, that we know that meat of any kind is disease promoting. Just like sugar, some people might be able to get away with eating small amounts of meat. But that doesn’t make it healthy.
      .
      People who buy into the “pasture-raised is healthier” idea are kidding themselves. I liken it to the difference between two American candy bars: Milky Way verses Snickers. You can make an argument that the Snickers is healthier, and you would be right because a Snickers bar has real, whole peanuts in them. I remember that years ago I even heard about some study (funded by the Snickers?) showing a health benefit of eating Snickers. But really? Really? Does anyone *really* think that Snickers are a health food? Our diet is so poor that even a few peanuts surrounded by pure junk might show an minor improvement. That still doesn’t make Snickers healthy in the long run.
      .
      Or another way to put it might be: On a scale from -10 to 10, where -10 are the most UNhealthy foods for humans and 10 are the most healthy foods, I would put the factory farm flesh at -8 and pasture/organic/whatever flesh at -6. People can argue over what the numbers are, but in general, all animal flesh falls into the negative category when considered as a package deal. It’s just a matter of how much negative.




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      1. PART 2: I just remembered that I have some resources/articles to point you to on this topic. You could point your friends to this article and video, the latter which includes a reference to a study that does just such a comparison you are looking for. Great stuff!

        ————–
        article from Susan Levin, MS, RD, is director of nutrition education at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting preventive medicine. Ms. Levin researches and writes about the connection between plant-based diets and a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
        http://www.forksoverknives.com/will-switching-to-organic-meat-dairy-and-eggs-save-your-health/

        ———————
        From Healthy Longetivity who was talking about Plant Positive:

        “In Nutrition Past and Future, Plant Positive reviewed a number of high quality studies that strongly contradict the claims of low-carb advocates such as Taubes. These studies include the observations from the China Study and numerous earlier observations in China that are in general agreement with Dr. Colin Campbell’s findings. For example, the observations that the nomadic Sinkiang in northern China who consumed diets rich in organic grass-fed animal foods experienced a 7 fold greater incidence of coronary artery disease than the Chinese living in Zhoushan Archipelago who consumed a diet much richer in plant based foods. These findings resemble even earlier observations from the 1920’s of the nomadic plainsmen in Dzungaria in northwest China and across the border in Kyrgyzstan who consumed enormous amounts of organic grass-fed animal foods and experienced severe vascular disease at young ages.”
        to see the Plant Positive’s video that Healthy Longetivity is talking about:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ioadYLEho8M




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  7. My family never drinks soda, but we usually keep some small bottles of coke on hand. Having bred poultry for many years and believing that we would often get Salmonella from purchased or bred chicks we have relied on coke to treat Salmonella based stomach bugs. Not sure what is in coke but it works very quickly to deal with stomach issues that we believe came from handling/cleaning up after young birds. Have not had birds for a over a year now and have not had any stomach issues.




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