E. coli has been grabbing the headlines recently, but it’s not the only food-borne pathogen we need to be concerned about. New research from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that supermarket chicken is frequently contaminated with antibiotic-resistant Campylobacter, a germ responsible for more than 2 million cases of diarrhea and 120 deaths in the United States each year.
Although most Americans who suffer Campylobacter-related illness each year get better in 10 days or less without antibiotics, fluoroquinolones — a group of antibiotics used to treat Campylobacter and other infections — are essential for treatment of “vulnerable populations,” including the elderly, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems. Because until recently these antibiotics were routinely used in confined poultry production systems, where respiratory diseases are a problem, we’re now battling antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans.
The study’s authors collected retail samples of five brands of chicken in 2004 and 2006. The brands included three “antibiotic-free” producers and two “conventional” producers. The first three say they’ve never used antibiotics; the second two claim to have discontinued fluoroquinolones in 2001 and 2002, respectively.
In terms of fluoroquinolone-resistant Campylobacter, the results showed a stark difference: Almost no antibiotic-resistant bacteria were found among the antibiotic-free chicken, while roughly 40 percent of the conventional chicken samples were contaminated with the hard-to-treat bugs. These findings come several years after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the agricultural use of fluoroquinolones.
A key question raised by the Johns Hopkins study is whether a simple ban on antibiotic use is sufficient to address the resistance problem that emerges when factory farms use low doses of antibiotics to keep crowded animals healthy. Resistant Campylobacter strains can linger in poultry-house watering systems, the authors note, or in floor litter, which is often not completely removed between flocks. Houseflies can even spread the antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Specific decontamination methods may be required over and above cessation of antibiotic use.
Consumers can avoid Campylobacter infections by washing their hands, utensils and surfaces thoroughly during and after handling raw chicken, and cooking it to 160 degrees Fahrenheit.