By Janeal Yancey, contributing blogger, Mom at The Meat Counter

Editor’s Note: This week, USFRA will feature a 2-part blog series on antibiotics and food authored by Janeal Yancey, Ph. D Meat Science, University of Arkansas and author of Mom at The Meat Counter.

News coverage continues on the use of antibiotics in farm animals. People can get very frightened when we talk about antibiotic resistant bacteria or antibiotics in the meat supply. And with Independence Day right around the corner – notably a great time to grill with family and friends – groups leading the charge to eliminate antibiotics used on farms and ranches have warned consumers, just ahead of the holiday about their hot dogs, apple pies and “antibiotics” in their meat.

I’ve posted on this subject before on my blog, Mom at the Meat Counter, but I feel inclined to share my story again. Consumers have questions and they rightly deserve answers. Not only do I work in agriculture, focusing on meat and food safety, but I, too, am I mother and I also have concerns about antibiotic resistance. I shared this post a year ago, after my child was diagnosed with MRSA.

ANTIBIOTICS AND THE MEAT SUPPLY: RESIDUES VS. RESISTANCE

Posted July 20, 2012

Antibiotics are an especially personal topic for me because our family had a scare with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  In May 2012, my daughter had a little lump behind her ear. I found it over a weekend and by Sunday evening, she was running a low fever, so we went to the doctor on Monday morning. By 6 p.m., we were admitted to the hospital with a very high fever and a freshly-lanced abscess. It took 2 of days of testing, and she was diagnosed with MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus). She spent three nights in the hospital on IV antibiotics. Now, she’s fine and back to her little rotten self. 

Experiences like ours are very scary, and I know there are a lot of parents with much worse stories to tell than mine. However, most people know very little about antibiotic-resistant bacteria like MRSA. When they hear about antibiotics in relation to our food supply, they don’t know what to think.

You may have heard a statistic in a news story that said that 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the US are given to livestock animals. That number is largely disputed. First, it is impossible to know how many antibiotics are sold in the U.S., for use in livestock or in humans. Second, a large percentage of drugs used by farmers are not useful in human medicine. Lastly, livestock represent a larger population of bodies than do humans. And, cows and pigs are a lot bigger than humans; pound for pound, they need more antibiotics. What is the real number? Who knows?

What about antibiotics in my meat?

When people in the food industry talk about antibiotics, there are two terms they use: antibiotic residues and antibiotic resistant bacteria.

‘Antibiotic-resistant bacteria’ refers to bacteria that are not easily killed by common antibiotics, they are resistant.

‘Antibiotic residues’ refers to actual antibiotic chemicals that have been given to the animals, either fed or given as injections, remaining in the edible tissue (meat, fat, or even milk).

The Food and Drug Administration regulates the approval and use of antibiotics in animal medicine.  Any antibiotic that is given to a food animal has a specified ‘withdrawal time’ which is the amount of time that the antibiotic has to be withdrawn from the animal before it is slaughtered. These times are based on how long it takes the animal to process the antibiotic so that it is eliminated from the body. Farmers must wait to slaughter an animal for that amount of time after giving the antibiotic to the animal or they will be breaking the law. 

The Food Safety Inspection Service (part of USDA) monitors the meat supply and tests for antibiotic residues in the meat. The levels of antibiotic residues found in the meat supply are very low (below 1%), and tests are done on a worst-case scenario basis, which means FSIS tests the tissues that are most likely to contain antibiotic residues (liver and kidneys) and they test a larger percentage of suspect animals (old cows, animals with injection scars, etc.). Although the levels are not zero, I am not really worried about antibiotic residues in meat.

WHAT CAN I DO?

Antibiotic resistant bacteria are susceptible to food safety measures such as cooking food thoroughly and keeping raw food away from cooked food.

  • Cooking kills antibiotic-resistant bacteria just like it kills antibiotic-susceptible bacteria. Use a meat thermometer to be sure you cook meat thoroughly.
  • Hot soap and water wash antibiotic-resistant bacteria off of counter tops and utensils.
  • Antibiotic-resistant bacteria cannot grow as well in cold environments just like the antibiotic susceptible strains, so getting fresh food and leftovers chilled quickly is very important.
  • Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can’t jump through the air from raw food to cooked food, so keep raw and ready-to-eat foods separate.

ANYTHING ELSE?

The main two bacteria species that we hear about when we talk about antibiotic resistance are Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Clostridium difficile. Although they are huge issues in the medical industry, the CDC does not see them as a risk in the meat industry. Food safety practices should keep you from getting sick from these bacteria in your food.

Lots of bacteria from raw meat can cause skin infections if they are introduced to an opening in the skin, and these antibiotic-resistant ones are very hard to fight. So, my advice is to be extra careful with raw meat, especially with children (face it, they are dirty little monsters. I’ve seen mine lick the bottom of her shoe.). Keep raw meat separate from other food from the time to pick it out at the grocery store until you cook it. 

  • Use a plastic bag to keep raw meat away from other food items and away from surfaces like the bottom of the grocery cart.
  • Wash your hands after handling raw meat
  • Wash down the countertop with warm soapy water after it came into contact with raw meat (even in the package)
  • If you have a cut on your hands, wear gloves when handling raw meat (like when you make hamburger patties.)
  • Don’t let very small children handle or be in contact with raw meat

Here is a list of a few more resources if you are interested.