The Cost of Cheap Meat on Foodborne Illnesses
Factory farm and industrial slaughterhouse conditions can be breeding grounds for dangerous bacteria that can contaminate meat, dairy, and egg products purchased at supermarkets. Some of these products may be tainted with harmful bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Campylobacter. These types of bacteria are among several pathogens that can cause physically distressing, serious, and sometimes fatal foodborne illnesses.
(The following brief summary includes footnote references to the actual studies in an annotated bibliography at the end of this report.)
Salmonella bacteria, the leading cause of food-related death, primarily originate in eggs from chickens raised on factory farms, particularly when confined in battery cages. Over 100,000 Americans are sickened from Salmonella bacteria each year. The illness usually lasts about a week, but potentially fatal complications can ensue if the bacteria spread to the bloodstream.1
Studies show that several factors contribute to salmonella food poisoning including the feeding of “spent hen meal” – ground up chickens whose egg production has declined – and slaughterhouse waste to chickens. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control found over one million cases of Salmonella poisoning was tied to feed containing animal byproducts. Over half the feed samples the FDA tested containing spent hen meal or slaughterhouse waste was positive for Salmonella. 1, 2
While Salmonella is primarily tied to eggs, a 2010 Consumer Reports survey found the bacteria present in 14% of supermarket broilers. 3
Organic egg production was found to have 95% less Salmonella contamination and free-range systems 98% less contamination than factory farm eggs in an extensive European Union study. 2
Campylobacter is the most common cause of foodborne illness in the US. 4 62% of the chickens tested by Consumer Reports contained this bacteria. 3
Campylobacter causes intestinal infections with symptoms that can include bloody diarrhea, nausea and/or vomiting, but rare complications can also develop such as reactive arthritis, heart and blood infections, and Guillain-Barre Syndrome. The bacteria can be fatal to very young children, the elderly, and those with immunosuppressed systems. 4
There are 2.4 million instances of Campylobacter food poisoning and 124 deaths in the US each year.5
Escherichia coli - E. coli
E. Coli, another bacteria that affects the intestinal tract, also can cause urinary tract infections (UTI’s) that are becoming increasingly antibiotic-resistant. Of the eight million people who get UTI’s in the US each year, one quarter of those contract the antibiotic-resistant strain that kills approximately 36,000 people annually from complications of kidney failure and blood poisoning.1
Ciprofloxacin, one of the antibiotics prescribed for UTI’s, is a common antibiotic given to chickens, and researchers found E.coli resistant to ciprofloxacin flourishing in chicken confinements. 6, 7 Another study conducted by Cambridge University in the United Kingdom found 24% of meat samples tested positive for ESBL E. coli that is resistant to the cephalosporin class of antibiotics.
A less common strain, E coli O157:H7, can be fatal in children. It results in less than 100,000 infections and fewer than 100 fatalities.2
Why Are We At Risk for Food Poisoning?
Fecal contamination of meat and eggs on factory farms and in slaughterhouses is the primary culprit in foodborne illness. To complicate matters, these bacteria are becoming increasingly antibiotic-resistant.
An Environmental Working Group analysis of government tests compiled in 2011 found the following alarming levels of contamination on raw supermarket meat:5
87% of supermarket meat sampled had either normal or antibiotic-resistant Enterococcus faecalis present. Enterococcus faecalis indicates the presence of fecal matter, and it can easily acquire and transfer antibiotic resistance to other microbes on the meat.
81% of ground turkey, 69% of pork chops, 55% of ground beef, and 39% of chicken breasts, wings or thighs were tainted with an antibiotic-resistant strain of Enterococcus faecalis.
9% of chicken and 10% of raw ground turkey samples were tainted with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella.
74% of all Salmonella microbes discovered on chicken were antibiotic-resistant, a 50% increase from samples tested in 2002
Antibiotic-resistant campylobacter was found on 26% of chicken pieces of which more than half were resistant to one antibiotic and 14% resistant to several.
Raw turkey samples had fewer of the same superbug microbes, but they were all antibiotic- resistant.
E. coli appeared on 16% of ground turkey and 13% of chicken, but 84% of the microbes were antibiotic-resistant strains.
74% of turkey samples contained Staphylococcus aureus bacteria resistant to one or more antibiotics, and 79% of the bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics.
A University of Minnesota study also found antibiotic-resistant E. coli from fecal contamination on 69% of pork and beef samples and 92% of poultry samples. 9
With this amount of bacterial contamination, it’s no wonder the incidence of foodborne illnesses is significant. However, cooking meat thoroughly kills Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli, so why do people frequently contract food poisoning?
It turns out that cross contamination is taking place in kitchens when handling raw meat and eggs. University of Arizona researchers found more fecal bacteria is present in kitchens than on toilet seats. Areas where the greatest contamination occurred included sponges, dishcloths, kitchen sink drain, bath sink drain, and kitchen faucet handles. 10
Whenever handling raw meat and eggs, washing hands and anything that comes into contact with these foods with hot, soapy water is an important precaution to take.
What are the costs? Annual medical estimates from the USDA released in 2014 found foodborne illnesses from 15 major pathogens cost the US economy over $15.6 billion, affected more than 8.9 million Americans, and sent 53,245 people to the hospital. 2,377 people die from foodborne infections each year.11
Of that $15.6 billion, Campylobacter cost Americans $1.9 billion; Salmonella $3.6 billion, and E. coli $217 million.
Individual costs varied. Victims of Salmonella poisoning paid an average of $573 for emergency room visits and $13,938 for hospitalization. Those suffering from E. coli spent $229 to $728 on emergency room visits and anywhere from $8400 to nearly $55,000 for hospitalization. Complete costs involving Campylobacter were not available.12
These costs do not take into account lost productivity or wages from missed time at work, not to mention the misery of suffering through a foodborne illness.
Who pays? 8.9 million Americans pay the price for foodborne illnesses every year with enormous physical suffering, high medical bills, and skyrocketing insurance premiums. Companies pay the price with lost productivity when sick workers are unavailable to work, or when caretakers must attend to family members. 2,377 people pay the price each year with their lives. Families and friends of deceased victims pay with grief and emotional suffering.
These are some of the costs cheap meat imposes on consumers with foodborne illnesses.
What You Can Do:
Learn how you can protect yourself from foodborne illnesses with tips from the CDC here.
Stay current with foodborne illness outbreaks and food recalls here.
Then learn more about what you can do here.
“E.Coli, Salmonella and Other Deadly Bacteria and Pathogens in Food: Factory Farms Are the Reason: An Interview with Dr. Michael Gregor, Part 2.” The Huffington Post. May 25, 2011.
“Food for Thought: Part 1 Foodborne Illness and Factory Farming.” Holistic Nursing Practice. May/June 2010.
“How Safe Is That Chicken? Most Tested Broilers Were Contaminated.” Consumer Reports. January 2010.
“Campylobacter.” World Health Organization.
“Superbugs Invade American Supermarkets.” Environmental Working Group.
“E. Coli That Cause Urinary Tract Infections are Now Resistant to Antibiotics.” Discover. May 2, 2012.
“Broiler Chickens as Source of Human Fluoroquinolone-Resistant Escherichia coli, Iceland.” Emerging Infectious Diseases. January 2010.
“Shocking Levels of Antibiotic-Resistant E. coli Bacteria Found in UK Supermarket Meat.” Soil Association. September 5, 0216.
“Antimicrobial-Resistant and Extraintestinal Pathogenic Escherichia coli in Retail Foods.” Journal of Infectious Diseases. April 1, 2005.
“Reduction of Faecal Coliform, Coliform and Heterotrophic Plate Count Bacteria in the Household Kitchen and Bathroom by Disinfection with Hypochlorite Cleaners.” Journal of Applied Microbiology. November 1998.
“USDA: U.S. Foodborne Illness Cost More Than $15.6 Billion Annually.” Food Safety News. October 9, 2014.
“Cost Estimates of Foodborne Illnesses.” United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service.