Multidrug-resistant bacteria less likely to be found on organic meat

BALTIMORE — Organic foods are often touted as the “better” choice, but they are also more expensive than regular foods. This makes many people wonder whether organic food is worth the extra money. Now, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggest that organic food may actually be the healthier choice too.

The Johns Hopkins team found organic meat was less likely to be contaminated with bacteria that can make people sick. This includes bacteria that are resistant to multiple types of antibiotics. It’s an important strength because infections caused by bacteria resistant to drugs are a serious public health concern. Millions of people are infected with bacteria from contaminated meat every year. If even a small fraction of these bacteria are drug-resistant, we have a huge problem on our hands, according to Meghan Davis, DVM, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Bloomberg School.

“The presence of pathogenic bacteria is worrisome in and of itself, considering the possible increased risk of contracting foodborne illness. If infections turn out to be multidrug resistant, they can be more deadly and more costly to treat,” the study author explains in a university release.

What’s the difference between regular and organic products?

Decades ago, farmers learned that antibiotics helped animals quickly gain weight. Unfortunately, this practice also promotes the growth and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Due to this side-effect, regulations have limited and even banned the use of antibiotics in animals that will be eaten. Organic meats have an extra requirement — the food the animal ate must also be 100-percent organic.

To determine whether these measures have helped reduce antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat, the researchers analyzed data from a nationwide testing of meats from 2012 to 2017 (as part of the U.S. National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System). They examined data from randomly sampled chicken breast, ground beef, ground turkey, and pork. The team also looked at four types of bacteria: Salmonella, Campylobacter, Enterococcus, and Escherichia coli. Some species of bacteria they analyzed were multidrug-resistant.

Organic meat factories are cleaner

The researchers discovered that less than one percent of certified organic meat carries this bacteria, in comparison to four percent of regular meat. Results show a total of 1,422 meat samples out of 39,348 contained at least one multidrug-resistant organism. All together, study authors say certified organic meat is 56-percent less likely to be contaminated with multidrug-resistant bacteria than regular meat.

The authors also conclude that where the meat is processed makes a difference in contamination rates. Regular meat processed in the same plant as organic meat appears to be less likely to contain bacteria. This is likely because workers must disinfect the equipment between meat batches at facilities that process both types of meat.

The team adds their findings lend support for policies that reduce or eliminate antibiotics use in the foods the public eat.

These findings appear in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

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