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Dec 28, 2011 09:53 AM

Bittman says there is a 25% chance of getting bacteria in ground meat

Something seems funny about this stat. If true then why aren't more people getting sick? I am no fan of factory farms, but this seems like a scare piece that most will ignore as they can say, "I've been buying burger at the grocery store for 25 years and no one in my family has ever gotten sick."


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  1. I believe the piece notes the chance of the meat having bacteria is close to 50%. There is a 25% chance of getting meat with antibiotic resistant bacteria. I see no reason to doubt the statistics.

    Not getting sick is not a result of buying the right packages. It is the result of killing the bacteria prior to consumption or being healthy enough for your body to do so. Most people may ignore it as it's not an immediacy. Then again, most people tolerate having to destroy the flavor of their meat in order to eat it. The increased prevalence of the resistant bacteria in our food (and environment at large) is what should really scare them.

    2 Replies
    1. re: MGZ

      That makes sense. Of course, (smacks hand into forehead) cooking kills most of the bad bacteria. When I read I hadn't considered that. And I agree with both of you, MGZ and babbete, the real problem is the resistant germs. I am afraid that until more people start getting sick, in large enough numbers, it's unlikely anything will change.

      What set me off in this article were the scary sounding stats. I feel that people will read that and discount the rest of the story because they don't see a corresponding effect. I hate it when I see, what I think of as scare tactics, used on issues I care about. Perhaps I would have felt better if he'd said , "The only reason more people don't get sick is because most cook the &^%t out of their food making it harmless and tasteless."


      1. More people don't get sick because most pathogens can be killed by adequate cooking, to between 140 and 160F, depending on the pathogen.

        Bittman's point is about the build-up of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Undercook your chicken and get regular old salmonellosis, and you're miserable for a week or two, but there are medicines that will speed your recovery. Undercook your chicken and ingest an antibiotic resistant strain of salmonella, and you're screwed. If there is no antibiotic you can take, its your immune system alone battling the infection. Medicine cannot keep up with antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. Bacteria multiply rapidly, and new drug development is slow. Recently I had a very painful non-food related infection for which my doctor prescribed Cipro. The Cipro didn't kill the infection, and when I went back to the Dr. I joked that I thought Cipro was supposed to kill anything. He agreed that it is, and was surprised it didn't, then gave me a penicillin-based antibiotic that did the job. The point being that there are a limited number of safe effective antibiotics, and when we allow antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria to develop - even encourage them by medicating healthy food animals - we quickly run out of options. Considering the mass scale of US food production systems, we can't afford to have these 'superbugs' in our food, even if they are usually killed by cooking. An e. coli outbreak is bad enough, but an antibiotic-resistant e. coli outbreak? Disastrous.

        9 Replies
        1. re: babette feasts

          What's disastrous is the reason these strains are becoming antibiotic-resistant is that antibiotics are being ... well, the best word I can use to describe it is "abused." Talk to a pediatrician and ask how often parents demand antibiotics for their kid if it sniffles. They're handed out pretty freely to adults too.

          1. re: MandalayVA

            Yes, patient demand is a factor too in building up the resistance. The stat that 80% of antibiotics in the US go to livestock suggests that we are getting a lot more through our food than we realize. Say a person takes a week's course of antibiotics in a year, and eats 150 pounds of meat (at 6-1/2 ounces a day). Which is going to contribute more to the problem?

            @JB, citing "scary sounding stats" isn't scare tactics if the stats are true. The truth is sometimes scary. He only cites a few statistics - the 80% of drugs going to animals, the percentage of staph/resistant staff in meat samples, and in the footnotes, that drug-resistant infections cost the US healthcare system between 16 and 26 billion dollars a year.

            1. re: babette feasts

              80% doesn't go to livestock, 80% of U.S. antibiotics produced go into agriculture. I was shocked to learn that much of that is also used on produce! Before we stop giving antibiotics to people who need them in the zeal not to over rx (this happens a lot, too), get them out of the food supply, the water run off, etc... 80%!

                1. re: babette feasts

                  They spray streptomycin and stuff onto plants. For plant diseases or resistance, I can't recall the exact purposes...

                  1. re: mcf

                    Streptomycin is used to control fireblight on apple trees. You can buy it (made by Bonide) in any gardening supply catalog. I have a container of it in my cabinet. Bought it to use on Erwinia (a different species related to fireblight) infection in my orchids. I've never used it though.

            2. re: MandalayVA

              I'm sure that you are right about antibiotics being handed out pretty freely to adults, but having been an adult for the entire existence of antibiotics, this hasn't been true for me. In fact a few years ago, I had to go to another doctor other than my own to get antibiotics that my dentist couldn't prescribe for me. My doctor would not prescribe them to me.

              I've learned that there are different antibiotics for different illnesses.

              1. re: Rella

                Some MDs are better than others. The trend has been towards greater awareness and thus resistance to giving them out but there are still a lot of docs out there who'll hand them out to shut their patients up - thus avoiding negative reviews, potential lawsuits, etc.

              2. re: MandalayVA

                I think the point of the article wasn't to focus on the excessive prescription writing that goes on due to nervous parents and overcautious doctors, which is another topic entirely. The article was about the agricultural use of antibiotics. As the article says, 80 percent of the antibiotics produced in the US is for agricultural use. That kind of dwarfs any overprescribing going on in doctor's offices.

                And those antibiotic resistant salmonella, e. Coli, MRSAs and other pathogens aren't developing in turkeys and cows who pass their bugs around via pediatrician offices.

            3. "I am no fan of factory farms, but this seems like a scare piece"

              It is. The reason is that people don't listen unless they are scared. So scared tactic works -- you see that in political ads too.

              I agree with MGZ. The piece actually said ~50% of the meat has staphylococcus aureus (not including other kind of bacteria), and 50% of these (which is 25% from total) has resistant to 3 classes of antibiotics, and then cooking help kill most of them. Now, just because meat has bacteria, it does not mean you will get sick by eating them. Our immune system help. Even if you are to eat these meat raw, you don't get a 50% chance of getting sick.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                The fact that we have a massive proportion of our immune system resources allocated to our digestive system helps a lot.  Too, antibiotic resistant bacteria are usually not resistant to stomach acid and digestive enzymes like cellulase.  Between the gut's local immune system and its corrosive conditions, you can go around licking a lot of doorknobs in MRSA infested hospitals.

                I think the main concern at this point is with those bacteria that can survive gut conditions, like e. Coli and salmonella.  For those, yeah, we have cooking at high temps and cutting out homemade mayonnaise, and our systemic immune response.

                I did get a bizarre, out of control fingernail infection a while back that seemed to have the symptoms of a MRSA.  It was after handling some discount store meat I bought on a trip.  I had to put a lot of  antiseptics on the finger, of the harsh kind you use on external cuts, and then soak in the antiseptics for hours so it could work its way in.  I had to do that every day for a while.  Then, for weeks, the deep tissue in the area around the infection was dead and eventually new tissue grew in.

                So handling meat may be an issue of concern, too.

              2. I believe it. And that is why we grind our own at home.

                1 Reply
                1. When in doubt, look for someone who has some insight. In this case:

                  She concludes with the following:
                  "The bottom line is that we simply don't have the studies yet to tell us if Staph on food is riskier than Staph at your gym, or Staph at your school, or Staph directly from a pig, etc. However, there's nothing good or beneficial about having yet another source of S. aureus that's multi-drug resistant, and as such, it's yet another reminder to do what you can regarding safe food handling practices."

                  So... Yes, it's bad news, but there are worst things out there and we shouldn't jump to conclusions. Rather sensible. In case anyone actually bought into the scare, remember, S. aureus is a common bacteria and may be on your right now. What do ya know? You're perfectly healthy.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: ediblover

                    Right. I also think we should put things in perspective and not focus and then magnified one thing completely out of proportion.

                    Is it true that there are bacteria becoming increasing more resistant to the antibiotics? Yes.
                    Is it true that antibiotics have been overused? Yes.
                    Is it potential possible that we will get infected by antibiotic resistance bacteria? Yes.

                    However, it is misleading to hint/suggest we live in some imminent dangerous or we are in some self-destruction mode. There is absolutely no hard data to support this.

                    If we look at the death by infectious disease rate (per 100,000 people), we are significantly better than 100 years ago:


                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                      Is imminent danger required to act prudently? In fact, isn't the most advantageous time to exercise caution before the problem becomes more difficult to solve? Washing and dressing a would when it is suffered is certainly a better course of action then amputating after infection has set in.

                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                        According to the chart rising between 1980 and 2000. And almost back to the mid-60's level.

                        1. re: Rella

                          There are bound to some rises and falls. You are not going to see a drop to zero. If you look before 1960's, you see a lot of tiny little ups and downs too. In addition, we have a few more explosions of deathly infectious diseases since then -- which are completely UNrelated to foods. For example, AIDS (HIV).