American chickens are fed a steady diet of tetracycline and other antibiotics, not to keep them from getting sick, but simply because the treatment makes healthy birds grow faster. The downside is that some bacteria mutate and develop resistance to drugs that once would have destroyed them. These drug-resistant “superbugs” can sicken and even kill people who eat undercooked meat.
Now, researchers have discovered another way that these virtually indestructible germs can spread. A study published by a Johns Hopkins University research team in the December issue of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives shows that workers in poultry slaughterhouses are 32 times more likely than the rest of the population to carry drug-resistant E. coli bacteria in their intestines. Apparently, just working around infected birds was enough to pass the bacteria on to the employees, and they, in turn, could spread the germs to the population at large.
The scientists’ disturbing conclusion: Poultry workers may be “an important route of entry for antimicrobial-resistant E. coli into the community.”
There is a simple way to prevent this problem. Follow the European Union’s example and ban the use of antibiotics for growth promotion.