A study reported in October’s New England Journal of Medicine has shed a negative light on ground meat. The Food and Drug Administration and University of Maryland had conducted a study that found one in five samples of supermarket ground meat and poultry that researchers purchased was contaminated with Salmonella. Specifically, researchers found that 20 percent of the 200 samples of ground chicken, beef, turkey and pork purchased at three Washington D.C.-area supermarkets contained Salmonella. In addition, 84 percent of those Salmonella bacteria were resistant to at least one type of antibiotic; 53 percent were resistant to three or more.

In response to the report, Lyle Vogel, DVM, a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, gave his views on the study’s results.

  • The retail meat samples were obtained in the summer of 1998, only six-months after the meat industry began pathogen reduction measures.
  • The authors called for guidelines for prudent use of antibiotics in food animals, but these are already exist and are being implemented.
  • The study did acknowledge that the sources of Salmonella infections are often unknown, but went on to make the claim that animal products are the most likely origin.
  • The prevalence of Salmonella enterica serotype definitive type 104 is no greater than previously reported through the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System program.
  • The authors imply that antibiotic resistance by humans is increasing in the United States. Although recent data from NARMS suggests a stable to declining trend.
  • There was no fluoroquinolone resistance detected.
  • The authors didn’t sample the retail or processing environments, or meat handlers involved, to determine the origin of the Salmonella, but chose to assume that the Salmonella came from animals. Further, there was no indication that any of the meat samples actually came from animals that had been exposed to the antibiotics to which there was resistance.
  • The authors didn’t acknowledge that the most important step in reducing or eliminating pathogens is proper handling and cooking of all meat and poultry.

These findings published with several other studies on livestock and antibiotics spurred several calls for tighter restrictions on the use of antibiotics in food producing animals. Vogel’s response points out the need for updated and proper testing procedures. Otherwise, studies like these will only alarm consumers instead of providing the facts.