Salmonella Alert: The Worst Chicken You Can Eat
Antibiotic-resistant infections affect 2 million Americans annually, leading to the death of at least 23,000.1 Even more die from complications related to the infections, and the numbers are steadily growing.
According to the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA), just one organism — methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA — kills more Americans each year than the combined total of emphysema, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, and homicide.2
A 2015 report3,4 commissioned by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron estimates that by 2050, the annual global death toll from antibiotic-resistant disease will reach 10 million, and the global cost for treatment will be around $100 trillion.
Experts have been warning about the implications of antibiotic resistance for years, but as their warnings have largely been ignored, the number of strains developing resistance to even our strongest antibiotics has been allowed to grow unabated.
While overuse of antibiotics in medicine and widespread use of antibacterial household products (items containing triclosan5) are part of the problem, the inappropriate use of antibiotics in farming bears the heaviest responsibility for creating the antibiotic-resistant superbug crisis of today.
An estimated 80 percent of total antibiotic sales in the U.S. end up in livestock. For example, commercial chicken producers have a history of treating each egg with gentamicin, an antibiotic listed as “essential” to human medicine. One chicken producer has seen the light though, and has abandoned this risky practice.
Perdue Proves Meat Production Can Prosper Without Drugs
Perdue Farms no longer uses gentamicin. In fact, according to a recent report by Mother Jones,6 the only antibiotic remaining in use at Perdue is narasin, an antibiotic not used in human medicine, and only about one-third of its chickens ever get it. (It’s used to treat a parasitic intestinal condition called coccidiosis.)
Any other antibiotics are administered to sick birds only (about 4 percent of all birds). According to Mother Jones:
“Perdue … the country’s fourth-largest poultry producer, has set out to show that the meat can be profitably mass-produced without drugs.
In 2014, the company eliminated gentamicin from all its hatcheries, the latest stage of a quiet effort started back in 2002 to cut the routine use of antibiotics from nearly its entire production process.”
Interestingly, Perdue fared the best in a 2010 Consumer Reports test7 checking for the presence of the foodborne pathogens salmonella and campylobacter in commercial chicken meat. Fifty-six percent of Perdue’s chickens were free of both pathogens.
Its main competitors, Tyson and Foster Farms, both had 80 percent of their chickens tested positive for one or both bacteria. Organic store brand chickens had no salmonella at all, but 57 percent still harbored campylobacter.
According to Consumer Reports, “This is the first time since we began testing chicken that one major brand has fared significantly better than others across the board.” Even back then, Perdue’s exemplary success was attributed to its more stringent policies on antibiotics.
Why Use Antibiotics in Food Production?
In food production, antibiotics are used for two purposes: 1) to combat disease brought on by overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, and 2) to promote speedy growth. The growth promoting ability of antibiotics was discovered by American Cyanamid (now part of Pfizer) in the 1950s.
It revolutionized livestock farming, allowing farmers to grow bigger chickens, turkeys, pigs and cows faster, without having to feed them more.
The main problem with using antibiotics in food production is that when microbes are exposed to repeated low doses of antibiotics, they quickly develop resistance. This possibility was highlighted by biologist Dr. Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin.
He noted that unless all of the microbes are killed, remaining survivors pass their resistant genes on to the next generation of bacteria, and so resistance becomes stronger and stronger, until the bacteria becomes completely impervious to the effects of the drug. As noted in the featured article:8
“When you treat thousands of chickens in a huge enclosed barn with, say, steady doses of tetracycline, you risk generating an E. coli bug that can resist the antibiotic you threw at it, and that bug’s new superpowers can also jump to a strain of salmonella that happens to be hanging around.
Now, two nasty pathogens that plague humans have developed tetracycline-resistant strains.”
The 50-Year Cover-Up
In the U.S., use of antibiotics in food animals rose six-fold between 1960 and 1970. It didn’t take long before scientists started warning that this practice had the potential to create a public health crisis.
By the end of the 1960s, British scientists found that feeding antibiotics to animals produced resistant bacteria that could be transmitted to humans. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) taskforce came to a similar conclusion in 1972.
At that time, the FDA stipulated that drug manufacturers had to prove their products did not contribute to resistance or risk losing their drug approval. So, the drug industry set out to prove antibiotics in animal feed would not pose such problems.
As reported by Mother Jones, rather than settle the question, their efforts resulted in a 50-year long cover-up of the facts:
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Consumer Reports Finds 100% Of Ground Beef Samples Contaminated With Fecal Bacteria
CNN Documentary Takes A Peek Behind The Food Industry Curtain
Sources and References
1 CDC.gov Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013
2 Forbes May 7, 2013
3 Review on Antimicrobial Resistance
4 ABC7 May 16, 2016
5 Time May 18, 2016
6, 8 Mother Jones May/June 2016
7 Consumer Reports January 2010