The recent rash of drug-resistant Salmonella contamination in ground beef is not a new issue, but that doesn't make it any less concerning: Just ask all those sick people in Colorado.
The strain of Salmonella associated with the first recall, of nearly 500,000 pounds of ground beef in late July by King Soopers, is Salmonella Typhimurium DT104. The strain associated with the second, of nearly 900,000 pounds of ground beef by Beef Packers Inc. in early August, is Salmonella Newport. Both are resistant to many commonly prescribed drugs, which can increase the risk of hospitalization or possible treatment failure in infected individuals.
In 2002, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified one drug-resistant strain of Salmonella as an "epidemic," according to the watchdog group Food & Water Watch. And just this year, the Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service found that the rate of Salmonella found in meat packing plants was higher than that predicted by earlier estimates.
Food & Water Watch has three recommendations for the USDA, to stop this kind of outbreak:
"Waiting for people to get sick is not an acceptable way to find out that a plant is sending out a contaminated product," said the group's executive director, Wenonah Hauter. "USDA must increase its testing for Salmonella, including antibiotic-resistant strains, and act swiftly when it finds positive results. In addition, Congress should rein in the routine overuse of antibiotics by industrialized livestock operations trying to compensate for the crowded conditions in which animals are raised. These drugs are too important to human medicine to be wasted by agribusiness."
Salmonella infections can be life-threatening, especially to those with weak immune systems, such as infants, the elderly and persons with HIV infection or undergoing chemotherapy. The most common manifestations of salmonellosis are diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever within eight to 72 hours. Additional symptoms may be chills, headache, nausea and vomiting that can last up to seven days.
It's not only a human health issue, but an animal rights issue: The recall of nearly 1.4 million pounds of beef means as many as 2,800 cows were slaughtered for no good reason.
The issues surrounding industrialized meat production are now familiar to many more people, thanks to books like the Omnivore's Dilemma and Food Matters and movies like Food Inc. (playing now -- don't miss it!). Animals are raised and fed in such close proximity that they are pumped full of antibiotics in order to ward off inevitable disease outbreaks that occur as the cows wade through their own feces. They are pumped up with hormones to make them grow faster, and fed an unnatural diet of corn (rather than grass), which increases the levels of harmful bacteria in their guts. The slaughtering of these animals is a messy process, and the introduction of bacteria to food-grade meat is not uncommon. Because of the heavy use of antibiotics, that bacteria has the potential to become drug-resistant, as is the case with the Colorado salmonellosis outbreak.
After testimony by the Food and Drug Administration, Congress has taken up the issue of antibiotic usage in industrial livestock operations.
Consumers can seek alternatives by avoiding meat, or buying grass-fed beef, humanely raised and organic meat from local farmers (who you can ask directly about farming practices). See how you can green your diet, for your health, and for the health of the Earth. Because factory farming conditions routinely result in the contamination of food, consumers who shop for meat at most groceries have to be vigilant in the preparation of their meals.
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