What government tests found in your meat

CNN News Service | 4/15/2013, 12:18 p.m.

When you shop for turkey burgers for dinner tonight, you may be buying more than meat.

A recently released FDA report found that of all the raw ground turkey tested, 81% was contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Also, according to the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, or NARMS, Retail Meat Annual Report, ground turkey wasn't the only problem. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria was found in some 69% of pork chops, 55% of ground beef and 39% of chicken.

In the meat NARMS tested, scientists found significant amounts of salmonella and Campylobacter -- bacteria that causes millions of cases of food poisoning a year.

Of the chicken tested, 53% was tainted with an antibiotic-resistant form of E.coli, the report said.

Certain strains of E.coli can cause urinary tract infections, pneumonia and other illnesses. Antibiotic resistance means if you were to become ill, doctors would have fewer drug options to treat you.

Antibiotics are used in livestock to prevent disease, but they are also used as a protectant and to help growth. Some 29.9 million pounds of antibiotics were sold in 2011 for meat and poultry production, compared to the 7.7 million sold for human use, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, and that number has been on the rise.

"Antibiotic use in animals is out of hand," said Dr. Gail Hansen, a veterinarian and senior officer for the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, a project aimed at phasing out overuse of antibiotics in food production.

"We feed antibiotics to sick animals, which is completely appropriate, but we also put antibiotics in their feed and in their water to help them grow faster and to compensate for unhygienic conditions. If you have to keep the animals healthy with drugs, I would argue you need to re-examine the system. You don't take antibiotics preventively when you go out into the world."

Dawn Undurraga, a nutritionist who works with the Environmental Working Group, an organization that released its own analysis of the report Monday, would agree.

Undurraga is particularly concerned about the NARMS findings because it means the consumption of meat is adding to what the director of the World Health Organization, Dr. Margaret Chan, last year called a "post-antibiotic era," or an era in which antibiotics will no longer work to fight disease because too many bacteria have developed resistance to it.

The Environmental Working Group would like the FDA to better regulate antibiotic use in meat. Currently, the FDA only offers suggested guidelines, according to the group.

"We need to end usage for growth promotion and feed efficiency and think about what we are doing for the long term," Undurraga said. "We also need more data."

Currently the law tracks only how many antibiotics are sold; it does not mandate data collection on how many animals are given the drugs or how much. Without that information, it is hard to know where antibiotics are used.

The FDA did not immediately respond to a CNN request for comment on the Environmental Working Group report.

The American Health Institute, the association that represents large agriculture and pharmaceutical industries, says it supports the NARMS monitoring program as "it provides an important early warning system on the potential for the emergence of antibiotic resistance bacteria," said Ron Phillips, vice president for legislative and public affairs, in an e-mail.

"NARMS is comprised of three arms that track resistant bacteria in humans, animals and retail meat. Based on historic data, there have been no discernible trends or patterns found between antibiotic resistance and the numbers reported in each group."

"We need to put these tests in perspective," said Mike Doyle, a microbiologist with the University of Georgia and the director for the university's Center for Food Safety. "It's no surprise that you would find salmonella and Campylobacter and E. coli, but if you look at the numbers, these are low levels and in the case of salmonella, for instance, we are seeing a decrease in multidrug resistant strains in humans."

Doyle does believe that farmers should use fewer antibiotics with their livestock, which he believes has happened over the past few years. "I predict within the next five years, the concept of using antibiotics as a prophylactic with animals is not going to continue."

Federal safety guidelines suggest handling meat with care. Thorough cooking can kill bacteria, and washing your hands before and after touching meat can prevent the spread of disease.

"My husband teases me that I'm too vigilant when I buy turkey and put it in a plastic bag and put it on the bottom shelf of the grocery cart, away from everything else," Undurraga said.

But, she noted, studies have shown a risk factor for salmonella in children is riding in shopping carts near raw meat or poultry. "I think you can't be too careful," she said.

Jen Christensen | CNN