Why are we having so much trouble with dangerous bacteria in our food?
E. coli, salmonella, listeria … How did this all start? The history goes back more than 50 years.
Let’s take E. coli — Escherichia coli — as an example. It belongs in your colon … and in mine, and in almost every other human. We are loaded with this organism! So, what’s the problem?
It is normal for them to be there. They are beneficial, helping digest food. The problem is that pathogenic antibiotic-resistant organisms are being created because of the overuse of antibiotics.
But prescribed antibiotics are less than half of the problem. The more serious part of the problem is caused by the use of antibiotics in fattening farm animals. Let me explain it all to you.
Most folks are unaware of the fact that antibiotics are being used in the production of much of our meat.
Antibiotics are being used for two basic reasons. First, and less problematic, is that antibiotics are routinely used when farm animals become sick. That is not a big problem.
Farmers in this country are allowed to treat their own stock, which they do on a regular basis. If an animal looks sick, or goes off feed, a farmer may decide to put the animal on an antibiotic regimen.
The grower may in some cases decide to take the animal to the stockyards for slaughter immediately while it is still on the antibiotic regimen, rather than taking a chance of losing the animal altogether.
The problem here is that there is frequently residual antibiotic presence at the site of injections, usually in the rump, where some of the best cuts of meat are taken. If a person who consumes the meat from that site is allergic to that drug, there may be an allergic reaction. In some cases, this may be a severe reaction that will not likely be connected to the antibiotic residue in the meat.
But a far worse problem has arisen with another use of antibiotics in our meat.
About 50 to 60 years ago, in an attempt to increase the grain-to-gain ratio in farm animals (more gain with less feed), farmers were told that by including some powdered antibiotics in with the feed their animals would gain weight faster and more cheaply.
Farmers began using antibiotics in feed at that time for that purpose, and as a matter of fact are still doing so. According to studies done in the 1960s, there was considerable controversy as to whether or not antibiotics even worked for this purpose. Let me reiterate that the livestock were fed antibiotics not to control disease, but rather to increase the grain-to-gain ratio.
Any time bacteria are exposed to an antibiotic, they are under what is called “selective pressure,” which allows only resistant forms to survive and reproduce. That is why the trouble began. To prevent this evolution, unnecessary use of antibiotics must be reduced.
A recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists revealed that every year in the U.S., 25 million pounds of antibiotics are fed to livestock as a feed supplement. This drug load represents a full 70 percent of the total U.S. antibiotic production. Human medicine, in comparison, uses only 3 million pounds of antibiotics each year.
Way back in the first week of June 1967, The National Academy of Science and the Food and Drug Administration held a public symposium in Washington, D.C., on “The Use of Drugs in Animal Feeds.” Then-Commissioner Dr. James L. Goddard presented the many years of scientific concern with antibiotics in animal feed. He stated the practice is dangerous because it offered the possibility of bacteria mutating and becoming dangerous in several ways.
First that they might become insensitive and resistant to antibiotics, and also that they might mutate and become pathogenic and excessively dangerous to humans.
When E. coli mutated, it became no longer the normal, intestinal organism. It has become dangerous. Hence the confusion with its name. In reality, it is a different organism and in my humble opinion should be given a distinctly different name. To continue to call it simply E. coli is very misleading. What they have done is to add to its name the numbers 0157H7, but when newspapers report outbreaks, they still refer to it as E. coli.
It has taken more than 50 years, but that which was feared has come upon us. You no doubt have heard of salmonella, E. coli, listeria and a number of other drug-resistant pathological organisms that we now must deal with.
Even more frightening is that antibiotic-resistant bacteria may transfer resistance genes to other bacteria, by so-called horizontal gene transfer, and these resistant bacteria can then be transferred between animals and between animals and people.
Now comes the interesting part of the story. An outbreak of the intestinal disease E. coli 0157H7 occurred in the 1990s in the U.S. that caused many people to get sick and many restaurants to close and indeed for some people to die.
Yet the full story was never disclosed by the major news media. You may recall some of the outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli diseases that occurred in certain restaurants. Unfortunately, and in most cases, the main responsibility for these problems was incorrectly laid to rest on those specific restaurants. Indeed, some of the blame did rest on them for not cooking the meat thoroughly.
But you must understand that the bacterial contamination was already in the meat when they received it. Not only was the meat already tainted with bacteria, it was tainted with these “superbugs” that were not only resistant to antibiotics but highly pathogenic as well. What I am saying is that those truly responsible for this problem were never exposed.
In one of these cases, some wonderful detective work was done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The contaminated meat was traced to a single farm in the Midwest where the inevitable had happened.
The continuous use of antibiotics in the feed to increase the grain-to-gain ratio caused a mutant variety of salmonella to be generated. It was not only pathogenic, but it was resistant to antibiotics. Many individuals who ate this meat became severely sick with intestinal disease. The big problem arose however when in an attempt to help sick people they were given oral antibiotics. The result was devastating and several individuals died.
The final twist here is that in people who ate the contaminated meat, the organisms infested their intestinal tract but those still had to compete with the normal intestinal bacteria for food, which in most cases offered competition to the growth and multiplication of the mutant organisms.
But when oral antibiotics were introduced for any malady, all of the normal, friendly bacteria were killed off, leaving the resistant organisms not killed by the antibiotics to flourish, free of competition.
In the cases of E. coli, byproducts called shiga toxins were secreted, causing tremendous damage to the human host, including acute hemorrhagic colitis (painful, bloody diarrhea), hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), as well as another condition called thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP). Similar cases were reported all around the country including in Walla Walla.
In these cases, “inspection of the restaurants disclosed no sanitary violations or unsafe practices.” Of course, the problem was already present in the meat.
Although some of the blame for spreading this disease rests on poor sanitation in the processing plants and the restaurants, and also in the undercooking of meat in the restaurants, the true culprits, in my opinion, are the pharmaceutical companies and the agricultural industry for introducing and promoting the use of antibiotics as a feed additive.
One of the best protections you can offer yourself and your family is the regular use of probiotics such as yogurt, acidophilus and kefir, especially if you are on an antibiotic regimen. These friendly bacteria will offer the dangerous bacteria competition in the gut and hence keep them from multiplying.
In fact, I regularly recommend probiotics to my patients who take oral antibiotics to prevent this scenario.
Retired chiropractic doctor Francis Trapani’s background includes a bachelor of science in agronomy from Penn State University; active practice for 41 years; investigative reporting for many years on stations KTRG and KPOI on Hawaii radio and exercise/fitness yoga TV broadcasts on channel KHVH, also in Hawaii. He has written three books and is working on a fourth; a yoga self-help manual “The Doctor Prescribes Yoga.” For more information, go to drftrapani.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.