Editor's Note: The following article, authored by Richard Raymond, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for food safety (2005-2008), appeared Oct. 29 on SFGate.com. The editors of Food Safety Magazine feel it is important for food industry professionals to be aware of the negative publicity generated by advocacy groups and "the popular press," and to learn how to avoid making headlines for the wrong reasons.

Source: SFGate.com

The recent outbreak of food-borne illnesses from Salmonella Heidelberg linked to three California Foster Farms chicken processing facilities has created a rash of misinformation from some media and activists, creating misperception by the public. The fact that so many were sickened, and an increased number hospitalized, speaks to the virulence of the strains found in the outbreak, not to antibiotic resistance.

In February, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its annual meat report on the prevalence and trends of antimicrobial resistance in food-borne bacteria. Samples from grocery stores of chicken, ground turkey, ground beef and pork chops had been collected in 2011 in 11 states. The report found:

  • "The antibiotics that are commonly used to treat patients are still effective. (The National Antibiotic-Resistance Monitoring System's) data indicates that first-line treatments for all four bacteria that we track ... are still effective."
  • "In the critically important class of antimicrobials, the 2011 data showed no fluoroquinolone resistance in Salmonella. This is the drug of choice for treating Salmonella."
  • "Macrolide antibiotic resistance in retail chicken isolates remains low." The macrolide antibiotic erythromycin is the drug of choice for treating campylobacter infections.
  • "Trimethoprim-sulfonamide is another drug used to treat Salmonella infections and resistance remains low."
  • "Additionally, we believe that it is inaccurate and alarmist to define bacteria resistance to one, or even a few, antimicrobials as 'superbugs' if these same bacteria are still treatable by other commonly used antibiotics."

A pathogen is called multidrug-resistant if it is resistant to at least three antibiotics. Those who want us to stop eating meat are concerned about the prevalence of multidrug antibiotic resistance and the need to declare multidrug-resistant salmonella an adulterant, not a naturally occurring organism.

In the recent outbreak, where at least 338 people across the United States were sickened, we saw 30 percent of the bacteria to be multidrug-resistant, and that brought about the expected cry of gloom and doom. But if one were to read the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) report on the salmonella outbreak, one would find that the resistance was to antibiotics that would not be front-line drugs to treat salmonellosis.

The antibiotics that would be front-line therapies would be Augmentin, Bactrim, ciprofloxacin and cephalosporins. No resistance was seen to these antibiotics in human specimens tested from the outbreak.

Americans eat about 160 million servings of chicken every day, and the vast majority of them are cooking and handling chicken properly and having a safe experience. Everyone involved wants that experience to be safe every time, which is why it is important as a last step to follow safe handling instructions and cook chicken to 165 degrees F.

Let us base any discussion about antibiotic use and resistance on biological science, which reporting on the recent outbreak of salmonella has almost totally disregarded.