Potentially harmful E. coli bacteria has developed such staunch resistance to human antibiotics in chicken processing facilities that workers may unwittingly spread harmful bacteria in their communities, according to a new Johns Hopkins University study detailed in Newsday.
The overuse of antibiotics on factory farms has long been a concern just for this reason. Keeping chickens and other animals in cramped quarters, and processing meat in centralized plants, allows for the easy spread of disease, in ways that are far less likely in more natural conditions. When farmers use antibiotics to prevent that spread, it spurs rapid bacterial evolution that can produce strains resistant to our otherwise powerful drugs.
An estimated 9 billion animals are slaughtered for food each year in the United States, presenting plenty of opportunity for a drug-resistant strain to develop and spread.
Workers in poultry factories are 32 times more likely to be infected with antibiotic-resistant E. coli than people who work in other trades, according to the study. Consumers may also be at risk, but proper handling instructions such as keeping raw chicken apart from other foods and cooking thoroughly, are effective safeguards. And the strains of concern in chickens are unlike those that have caused widespread illness from tainted beef and leafy greens.
If you want to avoid chickens raised on antibiotics, look for USDA-certified organic meat, or get to know a local farmer and ask about his or her methods of raising food.