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Turkey, with a side of salmonella

By Erin Lebow-Skelley
’Tis the season. We will soon gather with loved ones and express thanks for our families, our friends and our health. It is also the season for reminders from the Department of Public Health to keep our holiday meals safe by washing our hands and thoroughly cooking our meat.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 355 Americans are hospitalized every day from food poisoning. Eight of them die each day. This summer’s listeria outbreak and a more recent salmonella outbreak hit close to home and leave us wondering if that holiday turkey will be served with a side of food-borne bacteria. Who can we thank for that added risk this holiday season?

Cargill has recalled their ground turkey products twice this year due to the presence of a drug-resistant strain of salmonella affecting more than 36 million pounds of meat. Thirty-six million pounds of meat can feed about one in eight Americans. This expansive meat-distribution system revolves around concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs, or factory farms), which have been responsible for other nationwide food-borne illness outbreaks, like the salmonella outbreak of 2008 that affected 388 people in 42 states. So far, this time, the CDC has reported 77 cases of drug-resistant salmonella across 26 states, from Oregon to North Carolina, including one death.

While an obvious problem of this distribution system is the increased ability of a concentrated illness to spread quickly to all corners of the country, another concern arises from the qualities of the bacteria themselves.

Concerned medical professionals associate the surge in drug-resistant food-borne illnesses to the 29 billion pounds of antibiotics given to animals in CAFOs every year. The Food and Drug Administration reported that 80 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are used in animal-feeding operations. The overuse of antibiotics in otherwise healthy animals to encourage rapid growth and prevent disease in the squalid conditions of factory farms has led to the creation of “superbugs” resistant to these very antibiotics. Research done at N.C. State University found these superbugs present in the hog farms in our own backyard.

This rise in superbugs has led to an increase in drug-resistant infections. For example, doctors at UNC found that a drug-resistant strain of staph infection (MRSA) that had previously been isolated to hospitals is now commonly acquired in the community by previously low-risk patients. The UNC study found that this strain of MRSA now accounts for the majority of staph infections in children, and its prevalence has increased significantly over the last decade.

Who is protecting our children and families from these bacteria? The CDC and public health departments across the country continue to make it the responsibility of consumers to prevent their own illness and death from food-borne bacteria, advising them to wash their hands and counters and cook their meat thoroughly. Yet one in six Americans continue to get sick from food-borne disease each year. Who should really be responsible for preventing the 3,000 annual food-poisoning deaths that are caused by a livestock system run by a few corporations, which are allowed to thrive under our current regulatory policy? Instead of letting the responsibility fall to the American people, a few pen strokes in Washington could improve the safety and health of our food system, while saving almost $3 billion in food-borne illness-related medical costs every year.

As we gather this holiday season to express gratitude for the health and safety of our loved ones, it is time for our representatives to protect that very health and safety instead of the financial health of the giant agricultural and pharmaceutical corporations that benefit from current livestock methods. FDA regulations on antibiotic use for animals protect an agricultural system that neither supports America’s small farmers nor its general population. While the American people diligently wash their hands before their Thanksgiving feast, the FDA needs to do its part and reduce our risk before it happens by regulating the use of antibiotics in food animals.

Erin Lebow-Skelley is a master’s candidate in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

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