Germaphobia is in full swing. News reports of nasty microorganisms lurking on remote controls, doorknobs, and in public restrooms have many of us reaching for hand sanitizer. Sure, those tales are unappetizing, but chew on this: The real germs you need to worry about and avoid—the new-breed, potentially lethal ones—are hiding out in your grocery store's meat aisle. So what's the deal? Is meat healthy? Is it even safe?
Take these disturbing meat facts into account and learn to make wiser choices when you're shopping.
Fact: American animals raised for meat eat more than 30 million pounds of antibiotics a year.
Most supermarket meat today comes from operations that routinely feed animals low doses of antibiotics. This constant contact with drugs helps bacteria learn how to outsmart the meds, creating dangerous strains of hard-to-kill superbugs.
Shopping tip: Instead of tossing supermarket meat into your cart every shopping trip, plan some meatless meals that include organic dried beans or these vegetarian protein sources. When you do eat meat, be sure to practice proper food-safety measures, no matter how the meat was produced.
Fact: Each year, food animals raised in North Carolina alone ingest more antibiotics than the entire American public.
About 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the U.S. go to nonorganic farm animals to help speed livestock growth and counteract filthy, stressful housing situations that debilitate the animals' immune systems. The lack of accountability for the meds in industrial farming might surprise you. While people head to the doctor for a professional evaluation and prescription, anyone can walk into a farm store and buy pounds of antibiotics. The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, or PAMTA, a proposed legislation in Congress, would end the dangerous practice of feeding drugs to healthy animals, saving the medicines for when an animal is actually acutely ill and needs them.
Shopping tip: The organic seal ensures that animals were raised without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones, so go that route if you're trying to avoid drugged meat. Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Humane certification programs only allow giving antibiotics when an animal is actually sick.
Fact: MRSA kills more people than AIDS, and it's in your meat.
Forcing animals to eat drugs is creating a silent crisis in the U.S. A 2011 study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases took the gross-out factor to a whole new level. Researchers found that half of the U.S. supermarket meat sampled contained staph infection bacteria, including the hard-to-kill and potentially lethal MRSA. Turkey products were most likely to harbor staph bacteria, followed by pork and chicken products.
Shopping tip: Since contamination can occur in large processing plants, too, check LocalHarvest.org to find antibiotic-free meat from local farmers in your area who either slaughter on farm or use smaller processors. (The less meat gets mingled at a processor, the lower the risk of contamination.)
Fact: You could be eating animal worming medication.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered traces of harmful veterinary drugs and heavy metals in U.S. beef, including:
1. Ivermectin, an animal wormer that can cause neurological damage in humans.
2. Flunixin, a veterinary drug that can cause kidney damage, stomach, and colon ulcers, as well as blood in the stool of humans.
3. Penicillin, a drug that can cause life-threatening reactions in people who are allergic to it.
4. Arsenic, a known carcinogen that is allowed in some nonorganic animal feeding operations. (It is commonly fed to chickens, and chicken litter, or feces, is sometimes fed to feedlot cattle—and the majority of supermarket and fast-food beef in this country comes from feedlot operations.)
5. Copper, an essential element we need for our survival but that's harmful when too much accumulates in our bodies. And it is being found in the beef we eat, although U.S. agencies haven't been protecting consumers from it, even though some Third World countries manage to do so. In 2008, Mexican authorities rejected U.S. beef because it contained copper in excess of Mexico's tolerance levels. Because the U.S. doesn't have a set threshold for copper in beef, the meat was sent to U.S. stores, and ultimately, purchased by U.S. consumers.
Shopping tip: If you don't want to buy organic in the store, find a local farmer you trust, visit the farm to inspect conditions, and ask what they do to prevent and treat livestock diseases.
Fact: That Thanksgiving turkey could be several years old.
Sustainable farmer Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch recently testified at a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill, saying "no animal on earth suffers as much as the industrial turkey," aka the most common kind in your grocery store. Bred to grow unnaturally fast—20 to 40 pounds in just 12 to 19 weeks, these turkeys often suffer fractures because their massive frames stress their bones. Breathing problems, congestive heart failure, and other unpleasant ailments are common in turkey factory-farming, too.
According to Reese, food manufacturers barely even make money off of cheap Thanksgiving turkeys, frozen holiday fare that could be up to 3 years old. "Thanksgiving is a giveaway," he said. "How they make their money is in fast food and value-added products like lunch meat, where they charge $16 to $20 a pound."
Shopping tip: If you want to enjoy fresh, healthy, cruelty-free turkey, look for birds raised on pasture—not in crammed warehouse barns. Heritage Food USA carries Reese's heritage-breed birds, but local pasture-based farmers in your area may be able to keep costs lower.
Fact: Certain beef is more likely to harbor deadly E. coli germs.
It's natural for cows to eat grass, but not grains. Still, most cows today are raised in feedlots, where they chomp down lots of grain to speed growth. This changes the natural chemistry in a cow's gut, making it easier for potentially deadly E. coli O157:H7 strain to survive.
Shopping tip: Look for truly grass-fed beef bearing the American Grassfed label from The American Grassfed Association. Animal Welfare Approved beef requires that cows be raised on pasture-based diets, too.
Fact: Prozac may have been part of your chicken's diet.
Earlier in 2012, Johns Hopkins University study studied the feathers of imported chickens to figure out what the birds ingested before slaughter. Researchers were surprised to find traces of antidepressants, painkillers, banned antibiotics, and allergy medication. According to scientists, Prozac is sometimes used in imported chicken to quell anxiety because the birds are raised in tightly packed, factory-farm conditions. Stress causes the chickens to grow more slowly, hurting profits. Scientists also uncovered caffeine in about 50 percent of samples taken. Why? Caffeine keeps chickens awake so they can grow faster.
Shopping tip: Question claims like "natural" and don't always trust logos that depict happy farm scenes. Legit labels include organic, a certification program in which synthetic drugs and hormones are banned and organic feed is required, or Animal Welfare Approved, considered the most stringent certification in terms of animal well-being.