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Organic Consumers Association

Organic Chicken Carries Just as Many Superbugs as Conventional

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's All About Organics page and our Food Safety Research Center page.

As a student of the meat industry and its practices, I wasn't surprised by the recent Consumer Reports finding that nearly half of all chicken samples it plucked from supermarket shelves nationwide carried "at least one bacterium that was resistant to three or more commonly prescribed antibiotics." Factory-scale poultry facilities have relied on daily antibiotic doses for decades, contributing to a surge of life-threatening pathogens, and the Food and Drug Administration has only recently taken tentative steps to rein in the practice.

What got me was that chicken samples labeled "organic" or "no antibiotics" (list of all brands tested here) were just as likely to contain these potentially deadly, drug-defying pathogens. Notably, organic and antibiotic-free chicken both carry substantial premiums over conventional-at my local H-E-B supermarket in Austin, organic boneless chicken breast is fetching $7.97 per pound-vs. $4.99 for no-antibiotic and $1.97 for regular.

My surprise wasn't based on some romantic notion that organic food is cleaner. Bacteria develop the ability to withstand to antibiotics by being exposed to them regularly. US Department of Agriculture code forbids antibiotics in organic meat production, and the "no antibiotics" label means just that, and is also regulated by the USDA.

And there are recent peer-reviewed studies showing that, on actual farms, antibiotic resistant strains are much less common in organic facilities than in conventional. In this 2011 paper, University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins, and Penn State researchers compared 10 conventional poultry houses with 10 that had recently gone organic. They found that both types of houses were full of a bacteria called Enterococcus-but that strains it were between four and five times more likely to "multi-drug resistant"(able to survive three or more antibiotics) in the conventional facilities. A 2010 paper by University of Georgia, Ohio State and NC State researchers found similar results.

So if resistant strains appear to develop much less frequently on organically managed chicken farms, why do they show up at the same alarming rates in organic chicken on the supermarket shelf? Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety and sustainability for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, says no clear explanation has emerged. "If you don't use the agent that is accelerating resistance, then you will create less resistance," she said. Other factors must be coming into play, she said. One possibility is cross-contamination at the slaughterhouse-often the same facility will process conventional and organic birds alike.

Another possible factor is the one antibiotic loophole in organic poultry production: To get the USDA label, chickens need to be raised under organic rules only from the "second day of life" (PDF)-meaning that they can and commonly do receive antibiotics while at the hatchery. So it's possible that non-organic chicks could grow into organic chickens with plenty of antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains on their meat at the supermarket.

But that, of course, wouldn't explain why researchers have not found an abundance of antibiotic resistance on organic chicken farms-if the chicks came on to the farms with antibiotic-resistant material, presumably it would show up in the on-farm studies. And what's more, chicken labeled "no antibiotics" doesn't enjoy the same hatchery loophole-the USDA requires that it come from birds never exposed to antibiotics, even in the egg. Yet in the Consumer Reports study, "no antibiotics" chicken tended to carry just as many resistant strains as organic and conventional.  


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