Chicken Surprise: Antibiotic-Resistant E. Coli in All Production Methods
Consumers shopping for raw chicken
that does not contain antibiotic-resistant E. coli are in for a difficult
search, according to a research team from four separate institutions, including
Northern Arizona University.
For reasons that could not be immediately
explained, kosher chickens carried the greatest amount of antibiotic-resistant
E. coli, while organic chicken showed antibiotic-resistant bacteria levels just
as high as conventional chicken. Only chickens “raised without antibiotics”
(RWA) came in with reduced, but still contaminated, levels of the E. coli
looked at the products of various poultry production methods – kosher, organic,
RWA and conventional – but not at the details of the processing methods behind
them. Researchers said more study is needed, especially on kosher.
The antibiotic resistance in chicken
study was released on the same day the federal Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta said drug-resistant superbugs are now an urgent
public health danger in the United States.
The chicken researchers are from the
Horace Mann Bronx Campus, Translational Genomics Research Institute of
Flagstaff, Northern Arizona University and George Washington University in
Washington DC. Dr. Bruce Hungate, director of the Ecosystem Science and Society
Center, and NAU professor of biology, headed the team. The research was funded
by the Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research and the Ecosystem
Science and Society Center, both at NAU.
“We examined the occurrence of
antibiotic-resistant E. coli on raw chicken marketed as conventional, organic,
kosher and RWA,“ the study states. “From April-June 2012, we purchased 213
samples of raw chicken from 15 locations in the New York City metropolitan
The researchers then screened E.
coli isolates from each sample for resistance to 12 common antibiotics:
“Although the organic and RWA labels restrict the use of antibiotics, the
frequency of antibiotic-resistant E. coli tended to be only slightly lower for
RWA, and organic chicken was statistically indistinguishable from conventional
products that have no restrictions.”
The study found that chicken sold as
kosher had the highest frequency of antibiotic-resistant E. coli – nearly twice
as high as conventional raw chicken. In the abstract for the study, authors
stated that their kosher finding “belies the historic roots of kosher as a
means to ensure food safety.”
Other researchers at the University
of Washington, Royal Veterinary College of the United Kingdom and University of
Tennessee reviewed the report, and, in a update, the researchers responded by
disclosing more of their data.
“Organic, RWA, and kosher food
products supply a growing market niche,” the study states. “Consumers perceive
that they offer health benefits and are willing to pay a premium for them. The
actual health benefits of organic foods are largely anecdotal. Little is known
about the frequency of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms on kosher products.”
USDA requires specific production
methods for organic and RWA products, while kosher (and halal) production
methods are religious requirements. To carry an RWA label, poultry must be
raised continuously under organic management and without the use of antibiotics
from “birth to harvest.”
The study found that strains of E.
coli isolated from samples in the RWA category tended to be resistant to fewer
drugs, “but the difference was not significant versus conventional and organic,
which did not differ from each other.”
--Dan Flynn, Food Safety News