By Delthia Ricks

Antibiotic use in poultry processing has been controversial for decades, but researchers now say workers who handle “broiler chickens” in manufacturing plants are at risk of contracting drug-resistant E. coli and spreading it in communities.

Public health investigators at Johns Hopkins University estimate that workers in poultry factories in the United States are 32 times more likely to be colonized with E. coli that repels the antibiotic gentamicin than people in other lines of work. The drug is used to treat both poultry and humans.

“We are running out of antibiotics to treat human infections,” said Lance Price, who led a study evaluating antibiotic use in the broiler chicken industry. A broiler is a chicken raised specifically for its meat.

Price theorizes that worker exposure serves as a conduit of gentamicin-resistant E. coli to communities at large. As industry workers interact with others, resistant strains can spread exponentially, ultimately rendering the drug useless. “Many of these workers wear uniforms,” he said, which often are laundered at home and handled by other household members who can be exposed.

Price’s research, reported in this month’s issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, found that gentamicin is used more than any other antibiotic. Birds are given antibiotics when they’re sick, to prevent illnesses, and for growth enhancement.

Consumers can be exposed to drug-resistant bacteria during chicken preparation, Price said, but following strict rules of hygiene, and keeping raw fowl separated from other foods, can prevent colonization. Chickens also can harbor other bacteria.

“Any time you have organisms resistant to an antibiotic that is used in human medicine, then you have a problem,” said Kathryn Boor, who chairs the department of food science at Cornell University. However, there are dozens of E. coli strains, she added, and most are harmless. Chickens do not have or spread E. coli O157:H7, Boor underscored, a strain specific to cattle that contaminated spinach and lettuce last year.

Price studied stool samples from 16 poultry workers in Maryland and Virginia. All had evidence of gentamicin-resistant E. coli. He said his results can be extrapolated to the many thousands of workers who similarly handle chickens.

The U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, which represents the interests of producers and processors of broilers and other fowl, did not return Newsday’s phone calls yesterday.

Price said that over the past 50 years the industry has changed to an industrial complex controlled by a small number of corporate giants. These firms, he said, oversee all aspects of chicken production.

Antibiotics have been used for decades but the birds’ exposure has grown with the increasing scope of the industry. Price said anti-microbials are also used in the pork and beef industries.

“Nine billion food animals are produced and slaughtered in the United States annually,” Price said, “and all of those animals are defecating and shedding bacteria, including drug-resistant bacteria. So it’s important to look at occupational exposure.”

Fowl territory

A broiler is a chicken – male or female – bred and slaughtered for its meat.

Massive demand for chicken has led to factory farming, which cramps many thousands of birds together in a single environment.

The use of growth enhancers, such as hormones and antibiotics, have helped create bigger broilers that are more appealing to consumers. So-called free-range chickens are raised on organic farms and are not exposed to antibiotics or hormones.

Critics of the broiler industry say cramped pens, a hallmark of broiler rearing, is a breeding ground for infectious organisms.

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