Food safety with regard to organic versus conventional foods concerns pesticides and other synthetic and industrialized additives, but there is so much more–like life-altering bacteria and other contaminants… According to a new study from researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, meat that is certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture* is less likely to be contaminated with bacteria that can sicken people**, including dangerous, multidrug-resistant organisms, compared to conventionally produced meat.
The research team analyzed U.S. Food and Drug Administration-NARMS data from randomly sampled chicken breast, ground beef, ground turkey, and pork for any contamination and for contamination by multidrug-resistant organisms. The analysis covers four types of bacteria: Salmonella, Campylobacter, Enterococcus, and Escherichia coli.
The researchers found that, compared to conventionally processed meats, organic-certified meats were 56 percent less likely to be contaminated with multidrug-resistant bacteria. The study was based on nationwide testing of meats from 2012 to 2017 as part of the U.S. National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS)***. The study covered a total of 39,348 meat samples, of which 1,422 were found to be contaminated with at least one multidrug-resistant organism. The rate of contamination was 4 percent in the conventionally produced meat samples and just under 1 percent in those that were produced organically.
The analysis also suggested that the type of processing facility may influence the likelihood of meat contamination. Meat processors fall into three categories: exclusively organic, exclusively conventional, or those that handle both organic and conventional meats — so-called “split” processors. The study found that among conventional meats, those processed at facilities that exclusively handled conventional meats were contaminated with bacteria one-third of the time, while those handled at facilities that processed both conventional and organic meats were contaminated one-quarter of the time. The prevalence of multidrug-resistant bacteria was roughly the same in these two meat processor categories.
*In order for meat to be certified organic by the USDA, animals can never have been administered antibiotics or hormones, and animal feed and forage such as grass and hay must be 100 percent organic.
**Contaminated animal products and produce sicken tens of millions of people in the U.S. each year. The prevalence of multidrug-resistant organisms can complicate treatment.
***A longstanding concern about antibiotic use in livestock and livestock feed is the increased prevalence of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. To monitor this trend, in 1996 the federal government developed the U.S. National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) to track antibiotic resistance in bacteria isolated from retail meats, farmed animals, and patients with food-borne illness in the U.S.
Journal Reference: Gabriel K. Innes, Keeve E. Nachman, Alison G. Abraham, Joan A. Casey, Andrew N. Patton, Lance B. Price, Sara Y. Tartof, Meghan F. Davis. Contamination of Retail Meat Samples with Multidrug-Resistant Organisms in Relation to Organic and Conventional Production and Processing: A Cross-Sectional Analysis of Data from the United States National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, 2012. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2021; 129 (5) DOI: 10.1289/EHP7327