An outbreak of salmonella that has sickened 300 people in 18 states has public health officials investigating the sources of contamination worried that the particular strain of bacteria is extremely antibiotic-resistant.
The massive outbreak is linked to raw chicken from Foster Farms facilities in California and is the second major salmonella outbreak this year traced to the company. Earlier this year, at least 134 people in 13 states were sickened by Foster Farms poultry. Thirty-three of those people required hospitalization to treat the illness.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hospitalization rates are more than twice as high for this particular outbreak than they are for other salmonella outbreaks. Thus far, 42 percent of the people who have contracted the strain of salmonella Heidelberg from Foster Farms products have been hospitalized. Normally, the rate of hospitalization in a salmonella outbreak is about 20 percent.
CDC officials say the higher hospitalization rates stem from strains of salmonella that are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics given to chickens that are raised in dirty, crowded environments.
“Antibiotic resistance, as seen in this outbreak, may be associated with an increased risk of hospitalization or possible treatment failure in infected individuals,” CDC spokesperson John O’Connor told HealthDay.
“Ninety-five percent of chickens are grown in such horrific conditions that they’re standing in poop and they end up infected with salmonella,” Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center, told HealthDay. “If one chicken gets it, they all get it.”
To keep as many chickens healthy as possible, the factory pumps them full of antibiotics, giving the salmonella strain ample opportunity to develop resistance and strengthen.
The practice of giving antibiotics to farm animals for non-medical purposes is banned in most parts of Europe and Asia, but in the U.S., big agribusiness and their lobbyists have made sure legislators allow this method of raising animals instead of requiring cleaner, healthier conditions. As a result, farm animals now consume four times more antibiotics than the average human in the U.S. – a practice that worries nearly every medical professional, but one that remains perfectly legal.
In fact, U.S. meat producers aren’t even required to report the types and quantities of antibiotics they are using. One recent study, in fact, found that more than half of meat produced in the U.S. contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Complicating matters with this outbreak is the government shutdown, which furloughed most of the nation’s federal public health officials and likely impeded efforts by the CDC and other federal authorities to track the disease and take the necessary measures to avert future outbreaks.