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Should We Fear Our Food?

Antibiotics in Meat

You may take antibiotics only when you're sick, but poultry, cattle, and swine get low doses even when they're well to fend off infections common in factory farms and to promote growth. By some estimates, 70 percent of antibiotics produced in the United States are used for nontherapeutic purposes on largescale confinement farms.

The Potential Danger
"The drugs used on animals are the same ones we rely on at the doctor's office — penicillin, tetracycline," says Margaret Mellon, Ph.D., of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group in Washington, D.C. But those drugs are becoming less effective as bacteria develop resistance to them — and widespread use of antibiotics in animals may be making the problem worse. If resistant versions of deadly bacteria survive on animals and make it onto your plate, any infection you get could be harder to treat because antibiotics won't kill the germs.

The cattle industry says there's no firm link between antibiotics in animals and resistant germs in people, but many scientists aren't reassured. "It's hard to trace the impact of antibiotics in the U.S., because we don't require animal producers to tell how much or which drugs they use," says Mellon. In Denmark, however, where bacteria in live animals and food products are rigorously monitored, a recent study traced an outbreak of drugresistant salmonella that killed two people to a herd of pigs carrying the same drugresistant strain.

Should You Worry?
Most drug resistance in germs you might face comes from overuse of antibiotics in people, not animals. But the U.S. government takes the threat seriously — enough so that it established the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, which regularly tests bacteria from animals, people, and retail meats for signs of resistance to 17 common drugs. So far, there's no evidence that drug resistance is spreading from food to people. "But it's theoretically possible," says Craig Baumrucker, Ph.D., a professor of animal nutrition and physiology at Penn State University. Fortunately, cooking meat to the right temperature kills germs no matter what. (For information on how to safely store and cook food, go to

Genetically Engineered Corn

Most of us routinely — and unknowingly — eat foods containing at least some plant ingredients whose DNA was modified in order to help the plant grow heartier and prettier. In fact, about a dozen types of genetically modified crops have been approved for market since 1995, but the technology is mostly used on soy, cotton, and corn — which makes the corn syrup that goes into processed foods, as well as cornstarch, flour, and baking powder. Between corn, soy, and other foodstuffs, as much as 70 percent of the processed food in your supermarket could contain at least one ingredient that's been genetically modified.

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