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Experts say meat should always be thoroughly cooked to avoid illnesses from bacteria. cagkansayin/Getty Images
  • In a new study, researchers say they found drug-resistant bacteria in 40% of meat samples gathered at supermarkets in Spain.
  • The findings are amplifying concerns about food-borne illness and the overuse of antibiotic drugs.
  • Experts say you can lower the risk of food-borne illness by properly storing meat at cold temperatures and cooking it thoroughly.

E. coli bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics was found in 40% of meat samples gathered at supermarkets in Spain.

Also highly prevalent in the samples were strains of E. coli known to cause severe illness, according to research presented at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The findings, which haven’t been published yet in a peer-reviewed journal, are amplifying concerns about food-borne illness and the overuse of antibiotic drugs.

“Most consumers assume that everything they buy from a grocery store is guaranteed to be safe, but this is far from the truth,” Tyler Williams, the chief technical officer of ASI Food Safety, one of the largest food safety service providers in North America, told Medical News Today.

Infections caused by drug-resistant bacteria kill an estimated 700,000 people worldwide each year.

That number projected to reach 10 million by 2050 if current trends continue, according to the World Health Organization.

“Until we as a world agree on the best practices in slaughter and animal rendering it is likely to continue to be a problem and get worse,” Trevor Craig, a food safety expert and corporate director of technical training and consulting at Microbac Laboratories, told Medical News Today.

Researchers led by Dr. Azucena Mora Gutiérrez and Dr. Vanesa García Menéndez of the University of Santiago de Compostela-Lugo in Lugo, Spain, tested 100 meat products, including chicken, turkey, beef and pork, selected at random from supermarkets in Oviedo, Spain.

They found that while 73% of the supermarket meat contained levels of E. coli considered within safe limits for consumption, half of the samples contained multidrug-resistant and/or potentially pathogenic E. coli.

These included E. coli that produced enzymes that confer resistance to most beta-lactam antibiotics, including penicillins, cephalosporins, and the monobactam aztreonam.

About 27% of samples contained pathogenic extraintestinal E. coli (ExPEC), which can cause dangerous infections outside the intestinal tract.

“Even if the microorganism counts in meat products are within microbiologically healthy limits, superbugs may be there,” Gutiérrez told Medical News Today. “For this reason, it is important to update the methodology and include the monitoring of multi-drug resistant bacteria in the routine of control laboratories.”

Drug-resistant E. coli was found in 68% of turkey, 56% of chicken, 16% of beef, and 12% of pork samples, the researchers said.

Gutiérrez noted that shorter rearing periods and multiple potential contamination sources in the slaughter system help make E. coli more common in poultry samples.

The study authors called for governments to regularly assess levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat products and limit the use of antibiotics in farm animals.

“As we continue to rely on antibiotics to ensure that animals maintain acceptable health, we’re continuing to expose microbiological communities in the environment to residual antibiotics,” Dr. Bryan Quoc Le, the author of “150 Food Science Questions Answered,” told Medical News Today.

“While not all varieties of E. coli are pathogenic, bacteria are capable of transferring resistance across subspecies and we are just going to keep seeing more antibiotic-resistant food pathogens over time,” he added.

“The challenge is that our food system has a lot of momentum in doing things the same way as before,” said Le. “There isn’t a lot of innovation, so until the problem becomes unacceptable to the public and political spheres, the food and agricultural industry will continue to apply these low-cost antibiotic approaches to dealing with animal diseases, despite the long-term risks. And unfortunately, we as consumers will be burdened with the consequences of these resistant microorganisms.”

In the interim, there are things consumers can do to protect themselves from food-borne illnesses.

“Advice to consumers includes not breaking the cold chain from the supermarket to home, cooking meat thoroughly, storing it properly in the refrigerator and disinfecting knives, chopping boards and other cooking utensils used to prepare raw meat appropriately to avoid cross-contamination,” said Mora. “With these measures, eating meat becomes a pleasure and zero risk.”

“One frequent question is what happens if we eat meat with multi-drug-resistant bacteria in it?” said Gutiérrez. “And the answer is nothing, as long as we have cooked it properly. And nothing if we avoid cross-contamination when manipulating food to be eaten raw.”