Antibiotics are drugs used to treat bacterial infections. They are widely used in animal agriculture to treat disease and promote growth. Excessive antibiotic use can increase resistant bacteria, making the antibiotics less effective for both animals and humans. Resistant bacteria can be transferred from animals to humans through contaminated food products, causing infections and even death.

Resistant bacteria in food products

Resistant bacteria in foods are common. Commonly reported harmful bacteria from foods include SalmonellaCampylobacter, and E. coli. In a 2001 study of 200 U.S. supermarket samples of chicken, beef, turkey, and pork, 20% contained Salmonella. Of these, 84% were resistant to at least one antibiotic. One report from 2011 found resistant bacteria in 81% of ground turkey meat, 69% of pork chops, 55% of ground beef, and 39% of chicken breasts, wings, and thighs in U.S. supermarkets. In another 2011 study, researchers tested 136 beef, poultry, and pork samples from 36 U.S. supermarkets. Almost 25% tested positive for the resistant bacteria MRSA.

Many products claim to be “raised without antibiotics,” including some that are labeled “organic.” However, this does not mean these products are free from resistant bacteria. Evidence suggests that these products still contain resistant bacteria, although they are slightly less resistant than those in products grown using antibiotics. A 2005 study found that organic chickens were contaminated with bacteria such as Salmonella and Campylobacter more frequently than non-organic chickens. However, the bacteria in organic chickens were slightly less resistant to antibiotics. In a different study, the prevalence of Enterococcus bacteria was 25% higher in organic chicken than non-organic chicken. However, the amount of resistant bacteria was almost 13% lower in organic chicken. Another study found that out of 213 samples, the frequency of antibiotic-resistant E. coli tended to be only slightly lower in chicken raised without antibiotics than in regular chicken.

Antibiotics in Food 

How to minimize your risk of illness

It may be impossible to completely avoid resistant bacteria in animal foods. 

However, you can take some steps to significantly reduce your risk: 

  • Practice good food hygiene. Wash your hands, use separate cutting boards for different foods (especially for raw meat), and wash utensils thoroughly.
  • Ensure food is cooked properly. Cooking meat to the proper temperature should kill any harmful bacteria.
  • Buy antibiotic-free foods. You can minimize your risk even further by looking for labels that specify “organic,” “raised without antibiotics,” or “antibiotic-free.”

The debate on antibiotic use in animals is ongoing. Although there’s no evidence that antibiotics in foods harm people directly, most people agree that the overuse of antibiotics in food-producing animals is a problem. It can contribute to the development and spread of drug-resistant bacteria, which is a potential risk to public health.

Compiler: Dr. Vu Quynh Huong – Department of Food Processing Technology, Faculty of Food Science and Technology    

Keywords: antibiotics, resistant bacteria, antibiotic resistance, food