Meat and Poultry: How to Defend Against Microbes, Mad Cow and More

(Part 2 of a 3-part series on food safety.)

As the mercury rises, so does the likelihood of getting sick from meat and poultry, because bacteria breed faster in hot and humid summer air. Not only are animals more likely to be contaminated, but the heat makes it more likely that bacteria on meat will grow to numbers that can make you sick.
   Salmonella
, Campylobacter and E. coli are most often to blame for contaminating meat and poultry. Listeria is another bacterium that contaminates animals, but it is most problematic when it spreads to ready-to-eat foods like cheeses, packaged meats and hot dogs.
   Although most foodborne illness is relatively mild and fleeting?and often attributed to ‘stomach flu?’there can be long-term repercussions, especially in young children, older people and those with impaired immunity. Salmonella can cause a form of arthritis, Listeria can lead to meningitis and Campylobacter is culpable in many cases of Guillain-Barr? syndrome, a rare paralytic disease.
   What’s worse, certain strains of common foodborne pathogens have become immune to antibiotics, increasing the risk that you might land in the hospital with serious complications that are not easily treated. So before you throw another burger on the grill, read on to find out why we?re in a quandary over meat and poultry safety and what to do to stay well.

In Sickness and in Health. Why has the contamination of animals destined for our dinner plates become such a problem? The great comic strip philosopher Pogo may have said it best, ?We have met the enemy and he is us.?
   ?Human misuse of antibiotics is the primary reason why certain strains of bacteria no longer respond to antibiotics,? says Stuart Levy, M.D., professor of medicine at Tufts University and author of The Antibiotic Paradox (Harper Collins, 2002). However, he adds, ?feeding antibiotics to healthy animals on a longterm basis is a very close second.?
   When animals become sick, farmers administer antibiotics for healing purposes. That’s reasonable. What’s hard to justify is the enormous amount of antibiotics they use to prevent disease and simply to fatten up cattle, swine and poultry.
   ?Using low doses of antibiotics over the long term improves weight gain [in animals], so producers can spend less money on feed,? Levy explains. “Unfortunately, such chronic antibiotic use in livestock promotes microbial resistance.?
   Regular exposure to an antibiotic continually favors hardier strains of bacteria that are able to survive the constant barrage and then pass on their newfound resistance to successive generations. Eventually, the antibiotic wipes out  vulnerable bacteria, leaving only the resilient ones behind. The result? A once effective antibiotic is rendered useless.

Shooting Ourselves in the Foot. The European Union has banned all growth-promoting antibiotics. Not so the U.S., despite support from groups like the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association and the Union of Concerned Scientists for phasing out nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock.
   The ultimate irony is how ineffective antibiotics are at actually preventing disease in animals. In a recent study from Johns Hopkins University, researchers tested poultry from four U.S. producers for the common bacteria Campylobacter. Poultry from companies that used antibiotics were no less likely to be contaminated with Campylobacter than poultry from companies who did not use them.

Protect Yourself. Unfortunately, this problem will not go away soon. In the Johns Hopkins study, even though two of the poultry producers had ceased feeding their flocks antibiotics called fluoroquinolones, significant amounts of fluoroquinolone-resistant Campylobacter were still present in their poultry a year later, suggesting that resistant strains linger.
   What does that mean for you? Animal products will never be germ-free, so you need to take precautions against potential microbes. Here are EN‘s tips for keeping your meat and poultry safe:

? Eat fewer animal products. Most foodborne illness comes from tainted meat and poultry.
? Opt for organic. Certified organic livestock aren’t given antibiotics unless sick. They eat 100% certified organic feed or grass grown without toxic, persistent pesticides or fertilizers.
? Don’t count on free-range. It’s no guarantee that meat or poultry is antibiotic-free (see related story, this issue).
<FONT face=SymbolMT FONT Go directly home. Don’t let meat and poultry linger in your car after leaving the grocery store.
? Lather up. Always wash your hands before handling food. Make sure cutting boards, knives and anything else that touches food is clean too.
? Don’t cross-contaminate. Keep raw animal foods away from ready-to-eat fare. Never use uncooked marinade on cooked meat or poultry.
? Don’t wash poultry. It only spreads bacteria around, as germ-laden water splashes the sink and countertop, where it contaminates other foods.
? Turn up the heat. Use an instant-read thermometer to be sure ground beef reaches 160˚ F, hot dogs get to 165˚ F, poultry breasts register 170˚ F and steaks heat up to 145˚ F.
? Cook ground meats thoroughly. Don’t eat burgers that are pink in the middle. Ground beef is much riskier than steak, because contaminants on the outside of the meat are transferred to the inside when it is ground.
? Cool it. Never leave any food out for more than two hours, one hour if the outdoor temperature is 90˚ F. or more. Keep your refrigerator at 40˚ F or below. Do not defrost meat and poultry on the countertop.

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