super bugsBacteria that cause food poisoning but are resistant to drugs pose a serious health hazard, say food regulators, and should be a national priority since these "super bugs" have not been effectively controlled.

At a one-day conference in Washington, D.C., co-sponsored by the nonprofit consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest and The Pew Charitable Trusts, food safety experts and officials agreed that decades-long misuse of antibiotics on the nation's farms has been largely responsible for the steady increase in e.coli, salmonella and other food-related outbreaks in recent years.

"The problem has clearly emerged with respect to some high-risk foods," said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal in a statement. "Both humans and animals rely on antibiotics to stay healthy. But overuse in some sectors may squander their effectiveness and leave consumers vulnerable to hard-to-treat foodborne infections."In a recent CSPI study of 35 documented outbreaks between 1973 and 2009, dairy products and ground beef appeared to harbor the culprit pathogens, followed by poultry, pork, produce, seafood and eggs. Of these, 19 outbreaks were caused by bacteria resistant to five or more drugs. Since 2000 alone, multi-drug resistance was found in 10 out of 14 such outbreaks.

Antibiotic-resistant super bugs develop when drugs similar to those prescribed to humans are given to livestock and other animals in order to speed their growth and cut the cost of raising them. When infected meat or other animal products enter the food supply chain, it presents risks to consumers because illnesses contracted from eating such foods are less susceptible to treatment with common antibiotics.

Consumers who develop an infection from foodborne antibiotic-resistant bacteria are likely to have longer and more expensive hospital stays and more risk of death. Further, the antibiotics used when others don't work tend to be more toxic and have more dangerous side effects.

"It should not be a fact of life that people will get sick from or die from the food they eat," said Elisabeth Hagen, undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in opening remarks. "American consumers should not expect, nor accept that."

Spokespersons for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization also agreed that more needs to be done to protect public health. But some experts question whether regulators should continue to rely on farmers' and meat producers' voluntary compliance.

"A lot of folks don't seem to understand that many of the antibiotics used by farmers are available over the counter," said Gail Hansen, a veterinarian and Pew staffer working to phase out routine use of antibiotics in animal production. "Thirty years ago the FDA recommended that the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in food animal production be taken off the market. That voluntary approach doesn't seem to have worked so far, so I don't know what they think will be different this time."

One in six Americans -- about 48 million people -- get sick from a foodborne illness each year, according to most recent estimates from the CDC. Although it is not clear how many of these illnesses are caused by drug-resistant organisms, about 3,000 people die each year from tainted food.

As WalletPop previously reported, lax accountability at the FDA and the agency's alleged stonewalling of an investigation were at least partially responsible for the continued distribution of supermarket meat tainted with MRSA, a life-threatening, antibiotic-resistant staph infection. (The MRSA bacteria is pictured above right.)

The World Health Organization has identified antimicrobial resistance as one of the three greatest threats to human health, according to the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

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