More than half the samples of ground beef, ground turkey, and pork chops tested by a national health surveillance program contained one or more bacteria resistant to at least one antibiotic, according to an analysis of the test results. The analysis, released April 15 by a nonprofit group, has raised alarms about these findings, but a FDA spokeswoman says the analysis “oversimplifies” the surveillance results.
The national surveillance report, released in February and based on testing of more than 5,200 samples collected from grocery stores in 11 states in 2011, is part of an ongoing effort by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) to “monitor the prevalence and trends of antimicrobial resistance among foodborne isolates of Salmonella, Campylobacter, Enterococcus, and Escherichia coli,” according to the report. NARMS is a collaboration among the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 11 state public health laboratories.
The Environmental Work Group (EWG), based in Washington, has now published an analysis of the NARMS report titled “Superbugs Invade American Supermarkets.” The analysis was supported by an educational grant from Applegate, a company in Bridgewater, N.J., that sells “organic and natural meats.”
The EWG report highlighted the high percentages of samples in which antibiotic-resistant bacteria were detected: 81% of ground turkey, 69% of pork chops, 55% of ground beef, and 39% of retail chicken (wings, thighs, and breast). Also emphasized in the EWG report was the presence of antibiotic-resistant E. coli in 53% of chicken samples.
Siobhan DeLancey, RVT, MPH, veterinary medicine team lead in the department of communications and public engagement of the FDA’s Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine, attempts to put the findings of the NARMS report and the EWG analysis in context.
“While we are always concerned when we see antimicrobial resistance, we believe the EWG report oversimplifies the NARMS data,” she says via email. “EWG’s evaluation of the NARMS findings does not take into account the differences in the public health importance of different bacteria and antibiotics, and we believe that it is alarmist to imply that pathogens resistant to one, or even a few, antimicrobials should be called ‘superbugs.’
“The numbers cited are also misleading,” DeLancey continues. “We do not believe that EWG fully considered important factors that put these results in context, such as whether the bacterium is a foodborne pathogen (Enterococcus is not considered a foodborne pathogen), which drug(s) the bacterium are resistant to (for example, most Enterococcus faecalis is naturally resistant to lincosamides), and whether the main therapies for the pathogen are still effective (NARMS data indicate that first-line treatments are still effective).”