Organic Chicken Has as Many Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria as Conventional Chicken

Tom Philpott has a post at Mother Jones today about a Consumer Reports finding that, surprisingly, certified organic (and therefore antibiotic-free) chicken has as many “superbugs” (antibiotic-resistant bacteria) as chicken raised conventionally with antibiotics. The finding is clear but the reasons behind it aren’t at this point.

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.

Eighty percent of antibiotics used in the United States are given to animals raised for meat, dairy and eggs. Nearly all are given routinely, with the intent of preventing disease in these farmed animals, rather than as treatment for sick animals. The remaining 20 percent are used in human medicine.

Public health officials fear that if antibiotic resistance continues to accelerate at its current trajectory, we may find ourselves in a post-antibiotic age in the near future. If and when this happens, many infectious diseases that were fatal or caused permanently damage before the invention of antibiotics will be much more difficult to treat, as was the case prior to the 1940s.

The routine use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is an area ripe for reexamination.