Antibiotics and Its (Ab)Use in the Food Chain

fbdbec7eb2e911e2a68422000a1fb163_7Last winter I came down with a nasty cough, high fever, no appetite and the feeling that something was really wrong with me. Luckily, the right diagnosis (pneumonia) and a round of effective antibiotic treatment put me back on track. The outcome would probably not have been as lucky if this had happened before Alexander Fleming’s discovery of antibiotics. And if you can believe the Director-General of the World Health Organization, we might soon be in a similar position again, as the world is facing “an end to modern medicine as we know it”. Why this gloominess, one might ask. Here is what we found out about the use of antibiotics, how it can lead to drug-resistant bacteria and what we can do about it. Come and cook with us!

The National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, which is a project sponsored by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has published a report analyzing almost 2000 samples of meat and detected antibiotic resistant bacteria (such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and E.coli) in 81% of ground turkey, 69% of pork chops, 55% of ground beef and 39% of chicken breasts, wings and thighs. These strands of bacteria were resistant to at least one antibiotic, but many were multi-drug resistant. The reason this happens is that resistant bacteria have genes that enable them to survive certain antibiotics. What’s more scary is that these bacteria can share the traits that make them antibiotic-resistant with other kinds of bacteria, leading to widespread drug-resistance and the creation of bacterial super-bugs. These super-bugs can survive to spread through the environment and end up in humans.

As patients we should try to minimize the use of antibiotics. Don’t expect them to cure colds, most coughs, bronchitis, sore throats not caused by strep or runny noses. Anything caused by a virus will not be killed by antibiotics. However, over 75% of antibiotics are used on farms to treat sick animals but also to stimulate the animals’ growth. While this makes economic sense, the drawback is that these doses are too low to kill all the infectious bacteria and thus the bacteria that survive and flourish do so because they are resistant to the drug. Many European countries have stopped using several types of antibiotics in farming, and particularly Denmark (the largest pork exporter in the world) has been at the forefront with banning the use of antibiotics on farms except to treat sick animals.

Before you decide to live in a bubble, there are things you can do to lower your chances of getting food poisoning from resistant bacteria. Look for meat and poultry that comes from animals that only use antibiotics on animals to cure infections and not for any other “non-therapeutic” reasons. These labels include USDA Certified Organic, American Grassfed Certified, Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Humane. In the kitchen, throughly cooking (at least 10 minutes at 164 degrees F) your meat, poultry or fish eliminates most bacteria. These unfriendly germs are generally on the outside, so ground meat or poultry are the worst. Also be vigilant of cross-contamination, washing with hot soapy water all utensils and surfaces with which the uncooked meat and its juices have been in contact. I find it best to use paper towels as not to contaminate the dish rag or sponge as well.

Antibiotics can be viewed as natural resources that are here to serve all of us but use should be limited to when necessary and not wasted.  When it comes to our human health, we want antibiotics to continue to be our first line of defense. Come and cook with us!

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