Six years ago (in 2011), Sandy's Ruby Lee, in the State of Oregon, was fighting for her life against a superbbacteria. She was only 10 months old when her parents rushed her to the emergency room with severe diarrhea and high fever. "Ruby was so sick the first few days she barely moved," says her mother, Melissa Lee. "We were terrified of losing her."
The doctors finally diagnosed that the disease that Ruby suffered was part of an outbreak of salmonella Heidelberg caused by minced meat of turkey and that also sickened another 135 people in several states. That bacterium had become resistant to several antibiotics, but luckily Ruby's doctors found one that was still effective.
Even the simple manipulation of contaminated meat poses a risk. Ken Koehler, 55, always cooked his hamburgers very well. But he still got sick during an outbreak in 2011 of salmonella typhimurium linked to minced beef. Public health officials told him that the resistant bacteria could have come into his hands as he kneaded the raw meat to form the medallions of meat that he would then cook.
After weeks of bed, this neighbor of Old Orchard Beach, Maine, says that was one of the worst experiences of his life. Antibiotics cured the infection, but recovery was slow. "It was a month before I could eat a full meal," he recalls. "My digestive system has not yet returned to normal."
The story of Ruby and Ken's are not isolated incidents. Often the information available on cases such as these is incomplete, but according to data from the CDC, there have been at least 6 multi-state outbreaks of food infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria since 2011 to the present. The largest of them, linked to Foster Farms chickens, started in the spring of 2013 and continued through summer 2014, infecting 634 people in 29 states (in the U.S.). About 40% had to be hospitalized due to the seriousness of their situation, thus doubling the usual percentage of hospitalizations in salmonella outbreaks.
"Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are too common in our meat supply," says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of the Consumer Reports Safety and Sustainability Center. "Multistate outbreaks receive a lot of media attention, but the numbers underestimate the total number of disease cases, as there are many more that occur at the local level."
For example, in August, in Washington State, 152 people became ill from eating pork contaminated with salmonella immune to 4 antibiotics. "Over the years, we have analyzed hundreds of packets of beef, poultry and shrimp that were packaged for sale in supermarkets, and found bacteria resistant to multiple medications in samples of all three types of animal," says Rangan. (See "Our faulty food supply," above).
Next delivery: Why are medicines administered to animals? (3/12)