Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Microbiology of Factory Farmed Meat

This is the second post in a series about the many factors that pushed me to go vegetarian and limit my animal product consumption. To read the first post about the environmental effects of meat and dairy production, click here.

Again, what I say here is what works for me and why I do what I do. I hope not to judge but to encourage discussion and critical thinking of our food sources and diet. My eating habits change daily and depending upon the news I hear that day-- I believe we should all strive to be aware of where our food comes and how it gets to us.

As a microbiologist, I'm hyper-sensitive to issues of infectious disease and strongly believe that it's the government's role to regulate and ensure food safety. With that in mind, today I want to discuss the Microbiology and Infectious Disease aspect of Factory Farmed Meat. (hyperlinked text are sources)
It's probably no secret by now that factory farming practices are dirty and incredibly wasteful. Still, the Food and Drug Administration alongside the United States Department of Agriculture are charged with the role to oversee and protect the production and marketing of any and all ingestible items in the United States. Sadly, the decisions made by these agencies and the issues that slide under the radar post severe risks to our health.

Because of tightly-packed factory farms, diseases can and do run rampant. Consider this: in a henhouse packed with 3,000 birds that can barely move, excrement, blood and other waste covers the floor. This gives bacteria such as Salmonella and Campylobacter a free pass to jump between healthy chicken hosts. This same phenomenon can be found in pig and cattle farms as well. Indeed, this is how the 2009 H1N1 Swine Flu outbreak began. Frighteningly, most of this disease can be carried in the manure and finds its way to the human food supply due to poor sanitation conditions in the slaughter houses, with USDA investigators being actively discouraged to stop production even if they suspect of feces contamination.

The Bugs
According to the CDC, the top foodborne illness pathogens are the chicken-dwellers Campylobacter and Salmonella, and the beef-dweller E. coli O157:H7. These bacteria are all intestinal pathogens of these animals, that is, the disease can be spread from contaminated feces coming into contact with the oral cavity of humans or other animals. A statistic from 1999 estimates 76 million cases of illness, 325,000 hospitalizations and over 5,000 deaths are related to foodborne illness every year. In reality, this figure is much higher 12 years later in 2011 and often these illnesses go unreported.

  • Campylobacter is a chicken gut pathogen that causes campylobacteriosis in humans, which manifests as severe diarrhea and fever. The FDA acknowledges that 20-100% of commercial chickens harbor this bacteria! Gross.

  • Salmonella is another chicken pathogen that causes salmonellosis, an infection that causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. It's estimated that there are 2-4 million cases per year in the US of salmonellosis.

  • E. coli O157:H7 is a cattle pathogen that causes severe diarrheal disease in humans, and can lead to the development of the kidney disease Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. It's commonly found in contaminated ground beef and has lead to significant recalls just in the past year. Additionally, it's HUS from contaminated beef that killed 2 year-old Kevin Kowalcyk and lead to the push of food safety legislation known as Kevin's Law.
With all of this foodborne illness around, farmers and industrialists look for a cheap way to reduce the likelihood of disease spreading to their products. Rather than improve animal housing and sanitation conditions, the industry has turned to drugs.

The Drugs
Casual use of powerful antibiotics has long been looked down upon in science and medicine. Because of the nature of bacterial infections and antibiotics, their limited use is suggested as to not encourage the rise of drug resistant bacteria. This and other reasons are why strict regulation requires patients with infections to obtain prescriptions from a licensed physician.

It's surprising then to hear that the FDA estimates that over 28.7 million pounds of antibiotics were fed to livestock animals in 2009. To a microbiologist, this is absolutely frightening. By constantly challenging bacteria with antibiotics, the risk for mutations and adaptations within these bacteria greatly increases. Once humans become infected, our standard frontline treatments will be ineffective. This is an incredibly serious issue.

Unfortunately, there is evidence that resistance already occurring. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) has been on the rise and continues to be an issue in the United States. It's estimated that drug resistant infections have lead to over 65,000 US deaths per year. Scary stuff.

Prevent Bugs and Drugs in your Food:
With all of this data, it's pretty clear that poor sanitation and the overuse of antibiotics is leading to very serious disease outbreaks in the United States. As a microbiologist, I stand in horror at the possibilities of drug resistant bacteria and the lack of viable drug options. For these reasons, I've made the decision to stop eating meat and avoid the risk all together.

If you do choose to eat meat, here are some things you can do to protect yourself and your family:
  • Make sure you're preparing your meat according to standard safety guidelines. This includes washing, cooking and saving uncooked meat. Find guidelines here.
  • Pay attention to food recalls and illness outbreaks. You can do this online or follow the FDA on Twitter.
  • Purchase organic or grass-fed meat. It's not a guarantee these animals are pathogen-free, but more likely that their living conditions are a little better and a little safer.
What do you think about foodborne illness and antibiotic use?

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