Superbugs and antibiotic resistance: the facts


Source: Penn State University

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Recent headlines about dangerous “superbugs,” an outbreak of Salmonella from chicken parts on the West Coast and the announcement by a national restaurant chain that it plans to serve only “antibiotic-free” chicken — have the public alarmed and confused.

The subject of antibiotic-resistant pathogens and poultry is complicated, frightening and easily sensationalized, according to a food-safety expert in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

The term superbug was popularized by the news media, referring to drug-resistant bacteria that cause serious disease in humans. Infections from these pathogens are difficult to treat because the organisms don’t respond to a number of commonly used antibiotics.

“Every time the discussion of superbugs comes up, people immediately seem to identify food as the major issue,” said Martin Bucknavage, extension food-safety specialist. “Primarily they identify meat and poultry as a source in the development and dissemination of superbugs.”

The facts

But while there are antibiotic-resistant bacteria associated with meat and poultry, Bucknavage noted that the following facts should help clarify some of the myths associated with multi-drug resistant pathogens.

—According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most important source of antibiotic-resistant organisms is in hospitals. Another major factor is the over prescribing of antibiotics to people by doctors.

—The use of antibiotics in animals is regulated. “The administration of those drugs is limited to prevention and control of illness in the herd or flock, and regulations require that sufficient time pass after administration of the drugs so that there are no residues in the meat at the time of slaughter,” Bucknavage explained. “The use of antibiotics to promote growth is not permitted.

—The classes of antibiotics used in animals generally are different than those used in people.

—Having antibiotic resistance does not necessarily mean an organism is a superbug. “Many organisms can have resistance to antibiotics and not cause illness, or in other cases, pathogens can have resistance to antibiotics that are not normally used to treat human illness,” Bucknavage said.

—Many bacteria have naturally occurring antibiotic resistance, so to have raw meat or poultry with no antibiotic-resistant microorganisms is virtually impossible.

—If people properly handle, prepare and cook meat, they will eliminate potential pathogens that may be present. Antibiotic resistance does not give organisms the ability to survive proper cooking or cleaning.

“Now this is not to say that people can’t get ill from multi-antibiotic resistant pathogens,” Bucknavage said. “There has been the ongoing case of Foster Farms chicken in California that had been a source of severe illness. Some product was recalled — that was product that was cooked at a grocery store and then most likely mishandled, leading to cross contamination.”

He said that, according to the CDC, the Salmonella strain found to have antibiotic resistance in the Foster Farms case is resistant to an antibiotic that rarely is used to treat people for salmonellosis, although the CDC pointed out that having antibiotic resistance can be associated with increased risk of hospitalization in infected individuals.

The bottom line, Bucknavage emphasized, is that consumers should not be stressed that their raw chicken may contain superbugs.

“Certainly any raw meat can carry pathogens,” he said, “but these can be controlled through proper handling to prevent cross contamination and by cooking the meat to 165 degrees or higher.”

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  1. Just because the term superbug is popularized doesn’t mean it is inaccurate. Even in high impact peer review journals, such as Lancet, JAMA, etc. the term is used because it is accurate – we now have some strains of staph and gram-negative bacteria that are resistant to over twenty antibiotics. That is a superbug…

    You also imply that antibiotic resistant bacteria that are not pathogens are no problem. This is NOT TRUE. These strains often have the resistant gene on a multi copy plasmid that can then be transmitted quickly to other species, including pathogens.

    The bottom line is that we need tighter regulation in the food industry and in the doctor’s office to minimize antibiotic use. The current regulations are not strong enough. Your piece is just a one-sided damage control article, which is understandable given the source, but extremely irresponsible, given the stakes for the public well being.

    • You have some good points. But you miss the big picture, or you deliberately deny the facts and have bought into the anti-agriculture hysteria. Antibiotic use in livestock is and has been heavily regulated. What is NOT highly regulated and has NOT been regulated for decades is the dispensing of antibiotics to humans by doctors. Going back to the mothers of the 80s who wanted to have an antibiotic for their children’s illness, never mind that an antibiotic was not warranted, and the doctors who chose to placate them. It is not better today, with more and more RNs (nurse practitioners) acting as doctors and holding themsels out under the false idea that they have diagonistic skills. We have a generation who have taken more antibiotics for no useful purpose than in the history of antibiotics. Why not focus more of the hysteria on the dispensing of antibiotics to children?

  2. Why is no name listed as author of this article? What are the credentials of the author(s)? What Penn State University department initiated this article? What are Bucknavage’s credentials? Is this just a news release from the PR department? “The use of antibiotics in animals is regulated.” The big issue here is inadequate enforcement. The public’s concern is not just focused on “superbugs” in their meat but any pathogens in their meat.

  3. ” The use of antibiotics to promote growth is not permitted”.How can you say that? The drugs dosed out to cattle in feed lots is huge. They would not last to finishing stage without the drugs under the cattle’s growing conditions. and that is not “to promote growth”? Would you rather say “the use of drugs is not to promote growth but to keep them on life support until it’s time to harvest the cattle”? Pick your poison.


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