By: Eric Mittenthal

Two reports over the last several weeks have questioned meat and poultry safety by suggesting our products pose serious foodborne illness risk. These reports by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) claim to raise awareness about food safety risks, but they primarily mislead and misinform consumers about the safety of meat and poultry products.

The EWG “Superbug” report attempts to use National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) to show the prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria is increasing in meat and poultry products, but a careful read of this ‘superbug’ report reveals it is ‘super-misleading’.   Bacteria on meat and poultry products have been trending downward for more than a decade.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s foodborne illness data reflect similar downward trends. In fact the report was so deceptive that the FDA issued a rare response saying that EWG oversimplified the NARMS data and reached misleading conclusions. The FDA response is very revealing about the EWG report’s shortcomings, stating, “that it is inaccurate and alarmist to define bacteria resistant to one, or even a few, antimicrobials as “superbugs” if these same bacteria are still treatable by other commonly used antibiotics. This is especially misleading when speaking of bacteria that do not cause foodborne disease and have natural resistances.”

CSPI’s “Risky Meat” report is similarly misleading because it lacks total diet context. The report highlights what CSPI calls “Highest Risk,” “High Risk,” “Medium Risk,” and “Low Risk” meat and poultry products, but a broader examination of the total food supply could have delivered a more meaningful examination of food safety risk from our normal diets and would have shown that we have a meat and poultry supply that delivers consistently safe eating experiences.

In fact, when CSPI looked more broadly at the food supply in the outbreak analysis they released last month, they noted declines in foodborne outbreaks related to E. coli, Salmonella, and other pathogens of more than 40 percent. “Better food safety practices, notably the adoption of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) programs in the meat, poultry, and seafood industries, may have contributed to the decline,” CSPI wrote.

“Seafood, poultry, and beef showed the sharpest decline in the number of reported outbreaks in the study period; the trend line is less steep, but still downward, for the numbers of illnesses linked to those outbreaks,” the group also said.  CSPI cited several other food categories that were not seeing the level of food safety progress that the U.S. meat and poultry industry has achieved in the last decade.

The big picture perspective that both reports miss is that U.S. meat and poultry companies produce 90 billion pounds of meat and poultry products a year and 99.99 percent of these are consumed safely.  While meat and poultry processors strive to destroy all bacteria, whether they are resistant or not, it should be reassuring to know that cooking thoroughly destroys any bacteria that may remain on products despite efforts to target them during processing. Consumers should feel confident eating the meat and poultry products they love and should continue to follow the safe handling instructions provided on all packages.

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