Ken Koehler lay curled up on the floor of his bathroom in late November of 2011, waiting for the diarrhea and stomach pain to finally end.
A week earlier, the 53-year-old business consultant had grilled hamburgers from ground beef he bought at a local supermarket near Portland, Maine. He didn’t know that the beef was contaminated with Salmonella typhimurium. But this wasn’t your everyday S. typhimurium. The bacteria that felled Koehler—along with 19 other people in Maine and six other states, including a one-year-old and a 79-year-old—were resistant to nine different antibiotics.
Ken Koehler had become one of at least 440,000 Americans who are sickened each year after eating or handling food that’s tainted with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At least 2,000 of them die from their infections.
Thankfully, Ken survived. But after a day and a half of misery, a friend drove him to the emergency room, where nurses gave him three liters of fluid and took blood, urine, and stool samples to try to figure out what was making him so sick.
cattle, poultry, and pork industries use most of our antibiotics
Most of the antibiotics sold in the United States aren’t used to treat sick people. More than half—some estimates go as high as 80 percent—are routinely given to chickens, turkeys, pigs, and cattle to make them grow faster and to prevent disease. That exposes more bacteria to more antibiotics, which means that more bugs will become resistant to those drugs.
After years of prodding by health advocates, several large poultry producers and restaurant chains are doing—or promising to do—something about that. Perdue, for example, has ended the routine use of all antibiotics in raising its chickens. Tyson has reduced the routine use of human antibiotics by 80 percent. And Panera and Chipotle now only serve chicken that has been raised without the routine use of antibiotics.
“routine” is the key
“We need to look closely at what these companies say they are doing, because some of them are making strong, meaningful promises while others are offering weaker intentions,” says Lance Price, professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University School of Public Health.
Take multinational food giant Cargill. “Cargill Turkey says ‘NO’ to growth-promoting antibiotics,” trumpeted the headline of its July 2014 press release. People who read the release may have missed the words in parentheses in a list of steps the company is taking: “Antibiotics only used for treatment of illness and disease prevention.”
That kind of halfway change isn’t good enough. “Using antibiotics to prevent disease means that the drugs could routinely be given to the animals,” says Price. “Companies should say that they will not use any antibiotics that are important for human health except to treat sick animals under the care of a veterinarian.”
UPDATE: Cargill has introduced a new line of turkeys called “Honest Turkey” that have never been treated with antibiotics for its customers who want antibiotic-free birds.
a long road to recovery
Ken Koehler was lucky. He was a victim of a multi-state food poisoning outbreak, rather than a lone victim of a random bug. But the morning after Koehler’s ER visit, when a doctor from the hospital called, he didn’t know that. “I was instructed to take this five-day course of Cipro,” he remembers. “I came later to find out that I was one of the last people infected from the outbreak, and that they had already figured out that no other antibiotic worked.”
Fortunately, Koehler wasn’t allergic to Cipro. “A guy in New York who was allergic was in the hospital for eight months,” Koehler says he was told.
Even after Ken Koehler finished his Cipro, “I was pretty much bedridden for a few weeks,” he remembers. “It took me a month before I could even eat a meal. I was just living on fluids. To be able to eat three squares a day, it was probably three months.”
Koehler, who lost 23 pounds, later learned that he likely didn’t become ill from eating the tainted ground beef, but from shaping the raw meat into patties. “The CDC told me that I probably got sick by handling the meat, not ingesting it. Cooking it thoroughly on the grill would have killed the bacteria.” That might explain why his girlfriend’s daughter, who also ate one of the burgers, didn’t get sick.
much more aware of where his food comes from
As it turned out, some uncooked ground beef that Koehler had stored in his freezer was “the smoking gun” that eventually led the supermarket where he bought the meat—Hannaford Bros.—to issue a recall.
What happened “changed my life forever,” says Koehler. “I’m much more careful now about how I approach food.” He still buys hamburger meat, but only from local farms. “And when I see people pick up a package of ground beef in a supermarket, I tell them my story.”
The Bottom Line
- Whenever possible, choose meat and poultry that was raised without antibiotics.
- Wash your hands and all surfaces thoroughly after handling raw meat or poultry, and always cook it thoroughly.
- Antibiotics in meat and poultry resulting in dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria
- Is chicken for dinner giving you a urinary tract infection?
- Does your favorite restaurant limit antibiotic use in the meat and poultry it serves?
- Are Antibiotics in Meat a Food Safety Issue?
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