Germaphobia is in full swing. News reports of nasty microorganisms lurking on remote controls, doorknobs, and in public restrooms have many of us reaching for hand sanitizer. Sure, those tales are unappetizing, but chew on this: The real germs you need to worry about and avoid--the new-breed, potentially lethal ones--are hiding out in your grocery store's meat aisle. So what's the deal? Is meat healthy? Is it even safe?
Take these disturbing meat industry facts into account and learn to make wiser choices when you're food shopping.
Fact: American animals raised for meat eat more than 30 million pounds of antibiotics a year. Most supermarket meat today comes from operations that routinely feed animals low doses of antibiotics. This constant contact with drugs helps bacteria learn how to outsmart the meds, creating dangerous strains of hard-to-kill superbugs.
Shopping tip: Instead of tossing supermarket meat into your cart every shopping trip, plan some meatless meals that include organic dried beans or these vegetarian protein sources. When you do eat meat, be sure to practice proper food-safety measures, no matter how the meat was produced.
Fact: Each year, food animals raised in North Carolina alone ingest more antibiotics than the entire American public. About 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the U.S. go to nonorganic farm animals to help speed livestock growth and counteract filthy, stressful housing situations that debilitate the animals' immune systems. The lack of accountability for the meds in industrial farming might surprise you. While people head to the doctor for a professional evaluation and prescription, anyone can walk into a farm store and buy pounds of antibiotics. The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, or PAMTA, a proposed legislation in Congress, would end the dangerous practice of feeding drugs to healthy animals, saving the medicines for when an animal is actually acutely ill and needs them.
Shopping tip: The organic seal ensures that animals were raised without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones, so go that route if you're trying to avoid drugged meat. Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Humane certification programs only allow giving antibiotics when an animal is actually sick.
Fact: MRSA kills more people than AIDS, and it's in your meat.
Forcing animals to eat drugs is creating a silent crisis in the U.S. A 2011 study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases took the gross-out factor to a whole new level. Researchers found that half of the U.S. supermarket meat sampled contained staph infection bacteria, including the hard-to-kill and potentially lethal MRSA. Turkey products were most likely to harbor staph bacteria, followed by pork and chicken products.
Shopping tip: Since contamination can occur in large processing plants, too, check LocalHarvest.org to find antibiotic-free meat from local farmers in your area who either slaughter on farm or use smaller processors. (The less meat gets mingled at a processor, the lower the risk of contamination.)
Fact: Prozac may have been part of your chicken's diet. Earlier in 2012, Johns Hopkins University study studied the feathers of imported chickens to figure out what the birds ingested before slaughter. They found traces of antidepressants, painkillers, banned antibiotics, and allergy medication. According to scientists, Prozac is sometimes used to offset anxiety common in factory farm conditions. (Stress can slow birds' growth, hurting profits.) Scientists also uncovered caffeine in about 50 percent of samples taken. Why? Caffeine keeps chickens awake so they can grow faster.
Shopping tip: Question claims like "natural" and don't always trust logos that depict happy farm scenes. Legit labels include organic, a certification program in which synthetic drugs and hormones are banned and organic feed is required, or Animal Welfare Approved, considered the most stringent certification in terms of animal well-being.
Fact: You could be eating animal worming medication. The U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered traces of harmful veterinary drugs and heavy metals in U.S. beef, including:
1. Ivermectin, an animal wormer that can cause neurological damage in humans.
2. Flunixin, a veterinary drug that can cause kidney damage, stomach, and colon ulcers, as well as blood in the stool of humans.
3. Penicillin, a drug that can cause life-threatening reactions in people who are allergic to it.
4. Arsenic, a known carcinogen that is allowed in some nonorganic animal feeding operations. (It is commonly fed to chickens, and chicken litter, or feces, is sometimes fed to feedlot cattle--and the majority of supermarket and fast-food beef in this country comes from feedlot operations.)
5. Copper, an essential element we need for our survival but that's harmful when too much accumulates in our bodies.
Shopping tip: If you don't want to buy organic in the store, find a local farmer you trust, visit the farm to inspect conditions, and ask what they do to prevent and treat livestock diseases.
Fact: Certain beef is more likely to harbor deadly E. coli germs. It's natural for cows to eat grass, but not grains. Still, most cows today are raised in feedlots, where they chomp down lots of grain to speed growth. This changes the natural chemistry in a cow's gut, making it easier for potentially deadly E. coli O157:H7 strain to survive.
Shopping tip: Look for truly grass-fed beef bearing the American Grassfed label from The American Grassfed Association. Animal Welfare Approved beef requires that cows be raised on pasture-based diets, too.
Fact: Supermarket chicken could be fueling urinary tract infections. Investigating disease-causing bacteria on grocery store meat and comparing it to urine samples of women diagnosed with UTIs, researchers found that in 71 percent of cases, the E. coli bacteria collected from women with UTIs matched the strain detected on supermarket chicken. "People are eating a lot more chicken because it's often perceived as healthier," says Amy Manges, PhD, associate professor in the department of epidemiology, biostatistics and occupational health at McGill University in Montreal. "But what people don't realize is that chicken is pretty heavily contaminated with bacteria in general, and those bacteria tend to be drug resistant."
Shopping tip: If you're prone to UTIs, buy organic chicken. Research published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that turkeys and chickens raised on organic poultry farms had almost four times lower levels of drug-resistant bacteria in their systems than those raised in cramped quarters. Better yet, look for chicken from a pasture-based local farmer with a small flock.
Fact: All the antibiotics that are pumped into cattle, and other modern-day farming practices, lead to tough, chewy steaks, says Sarah Klein, a senior attorney in the food-safety program at Center for Science in the Public Interest. So, increasingly, slaughterhouses have adopted the process of mechanically tenderizing steaks and other high-quality cuts of beef. Doing so involves driving blades and needles into steak--which in turn, drive any bacteria living on the surface of a steak deep into the flesh. When you get an undercooked steak, for instance, if you like to order yours rare or medium, all that bacteria inside the meat is still alive, whereas before, it would have been seared off when the outside was cooked, she says. More than half of the 82 outbreaks linked to steak in the past ten years can be linked to E. coli, a bacterium that's usually only found on the exterior of whole cuts of meat.
Shopping tip: Plants aren't required to label mechanically tenderized meat, so you don't know which cuts to handle with care and which are ok to order a little pink. Stick with grass-fed beef, which studies have shown harbors lower levels of E. coli, and find a local farmer who processes their own meat without mechanically tenderizing it.
Fact: Antibiotics are used on conventional farms to make animals grow faster. And emerging research suggests antibiotics could be making us fatter, too, disrupting the natural balance of beneficial gut bacteria. "For many years now, farmers have known that antibiotics are great at producing heavier cows for market," explains Jan Blustein, MD, PhD, professor of population health and medicine at NYU School of Medicine. "While we need more research to confirm our findings, this carefully conducted study suggests that antibiotics influence weight gain in humans, especially children, too."
Shopping tip: Organic bans the use of antibiotics in farming. Choose organic at the supermarket to avoid antibiotic residues, or search for a small local farmer who nixes the routine use of antibiotics.
To learn more about sourcing meat from happy animals and to avoid the perils of the food system, check out:
• The 9 Nastiest Things You're Eating
• The Truth about Organic
• Is Your Grocery List Toxic
• 5 New Ways to Avoid the Supermarket