Why Does the Meat Industry Routinely Feed Animals Antibiotics?

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When farm animals are fed antibiotics, they can develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their guts. Manure contamination of meat can then transfer these gut bacteria to humans. These bacteria can even spread to vegetarians, since drug-resistant bacteria in the animal feces can also spread to people through crops or the environment. Exhaust fans can blow MRSA superbugs straight out into the surrounding area from pig or poultry operations. This may explain why human MRSA infections in Europe have been tied to just living in a region with industrial pig production, whether or not people have direct contact with livestock. These findings may not just be limited to Europe.

European factory farms pale in comparison to what we have here in the U.S. From an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association's Internal Medicine: "proximity to swine manure application to crop fields and livestock operations was each associated with MRSA and skin and soft-tissue infections [in people in the U.S]. These findings contribute to the growing concern about the potential public health impacts of high-density livestock production."

An article published in Lancet Infectious Diseases explains that, "achievements in modern medicine, such as surgery, the treatment of preterm babies, and cancer chemotherapy, which we today take for granted, would not be possible without access to effective treatment for bacterial infections. Within just a few years, we might be faced with dire setbacks, medically, socially, and economically, unless real and unprecedented global coordinated actions are immediately taken" to protect these wonder drugs. Therefore, the use of antibiotics just to promote the growth of farm animals to slaughter weights should be banned worldwide. Europe stopped feeding pigs and chickens tetracycline and penicillin to promote growth about 40 years ago, something the U.S. meat industry continues to do to this day.

The Pew Commission recently published a five year update on their landmark blue ribbon commission report on current agricultural practices that found "the present system of producing food animals in the United States presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health." Their number one recommendation was to ban the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, but agriculture lobbies are not going to give up the use of antibiotics without a fight (See Antibiotics: Agribusinesses' Pound of Flesh).

In December 2013, the FDA released "Guidance for Industry," their voluntary, non-binding recommendation for industry. They recommend antibiotics no longer be used to just fatten animals for slaughter, but emphasize that they are just that: toothless, non-legally enforceable suggestions. As mentioned in the Pew Commission report, "this voluntary approach has come under withering criticism from the public health and medical communities concerned about the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacterial pathogens."

The USDA is even considering going backwards, eliminating the requirement to even test for Staph aureus at all in the Federal School Lunch Program. They understand that "school-aged children are considered a 'sensitive population', hence, more stringent requirements, including sampling plans, may be considered to help assure safety and public confidence. However, the cost of such programs must be weighed against the cost of buying the food needed to support the program."

As one University of Iowa epidemiologist said, "although human health should take priority over farm animals, farmers will be reluctant to change until researchers can come up with safe and cost-effective practices to replace the use of antibiotics." How much are antibiotics really saving the industry? The net bottom-line benefit from the use of antibiotic feed additives may only be about $0.25 per animal, which means eliminating the risky practice of feeding antibiotics by the ton to farm animals would raise the price of meat less than a penny per pound.

For those not familiar with MRSA, please see my past videos on the topic:

For more on antibiotic use on the farm, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: AJC ajcann.wordpress.com / Flickr

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Dioxins in U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish

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Dioxins are highly toxic pollutants that accumulate in tissue fat. Almost all dioxins found in people who don't work in toxic waste dumps or something similarly hazardous are believed to come from food, especially meat, milk, and fish, which account for about 95% of human exposure. We tend to only hear about it in the news, though, when there's some mass poisoning.

In 1957, for example, millions of chickens began dying, blamed on toxic components in certain feed fats. Factory farming was taking off, and the industry needed cheap feed to fatten up the birds. They ended up using a toxic fleshing grease from hide stripping operations in the leather industry that were using dioxin-containing preservatives. A subsequent outbreak in 1969 resulted from a pipe mix-up at a refinery that was producing both pesticides and animal feed.

In the 1990's, a supermarket survey found the highest concentrations of dioxins in farm-raised catfish. The source of dioxins was determined to be the feed, but that's surprising, since catfish aren't fed a lot of animal fat. Turns out it was dioxin-contaminated clay added to the feed as an anti-caking agent, which may have originally come from sewage sludge. The same contaminated feed was fed to chickens, so what may have started out in sewage sludge ended up on the plates of consumers in the form of farm-raised catfish and chicken.

How widespread of a problem did it become? This affected five percent of U.S. poultry production, that's people eating hundreds of millions of contaminated chickens. And if it's in the chickens, it's in the eggs. Elevated dioxin levels were found in chicken eggs too. When the source of the feed contamination was identified, the USDA estimated that less than 1% of animal feed was contaminated, but 1% of egg production means over a million eggs a day. But the catfish were the worst. More than a third of all U.S. farm-raised catfish were found contaminated with dioxins thanks to that ball clay. So the FDA requested that ball clay not be used in animal feeds. They even asked nicely, writing "Dear producer or user of clay products in animal feeds, continued exposure to elevated dioxin levels in animal feed increases the risk of adverse health effects in those consuming animal-derived food products... we are recommending that the use of ball clay in animal feeds be discontinued...We look forward to the industry's cooperation." (You can see the original letter in my video, Dioxins in U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish).

So how cooperative did the industry end up being? Half a billion pounds of catfish continued to be churned out of U.S. fish farms every year but only recently did the government go back and check. Published in 2013, samples of catfish were collected from all over the country. Dioxins were found in 96% of samples tested. Yeah, but just because catfish are bought in the U.S. doesn't mean they came from the U.S. And indeed some of the catfish were imported from China or Taiwan, but they were found to be ten times less contaminated. And indeed, when they checked the feed fed to U.S. catfish, more than half were contaminated, and so it seems likely that mined clay products are still being used in U.S. catfish feeds. Even "just small amounts of mineral clays added to fish feeds, together with the fact that catfish can be bottom-feeders may lead to higher than acceptable dioxin residues in the final catfish products."

The Institute of Medicine suggests strategies to reduce dioxin intake exposure, such as trimming the fat from meat, poultry, and fish, and avoiding the recycling of animal fat into gravy, but if almost all dioxin intake comes from animal fat, then eating a more plant-based diet could wipe out about 98% of exposure. Thus "a vegetarian diet or even just eating more plants might have previously unsuspected health advantages along with the more commonly recognized cardiovascular benefits and decreased cancer risk."

This is a good illustration of how we can't necessarily rely on regulators to protect our families' health. More on dietary dioxins and what we can do about it in Dioxins in the Food Supply and Counteracting the Effects of Dioxins Through Diet.

Even wild fish are exposed to industrial pollutants spewed into our waterways. See, for example:

Farmed fish is the worst, though: Farmed Fish vs. Wild-Caught.

Other pollutants in our food supply and how to avoid them:

Though the best way to detox is not to tox in the first place, our bodies can eventually get rid of much of the toxin load:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Brent Moore / Flickr

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Antibiotic-Resistant "Superbugs" in Meat

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As a rule, "high-ranking public-health officials try to avoid apocalyptic descriptors. So it's worrying to hear those like the Director of the CDC warn of a coming health 'nightmare' and a 'catastrophic threat.'" A number of prominent publications recently warned of the threat of antibiotic resistance. The CDC estimates that at a minimum, more than two million people are sickened every year with antibiotic-resistant infections in the United States, with at least 23,000 dying as a result (See MRSA Superbugs in Meat).

We may be at the dawn of a post-antibiotic era. Achievements in modern medicine that we today take for granted, such as surgery and the treatment of preterm babies, would not be possible without access to effective treatment for bacterial infections. For example, without antibiotics, the rate of postoperative infection after a procedure like a hip replacement would be 40-50% and about one in three of those patients would die. So the so-called worst case scenarios where resistant infections could cost $50 billion a year might still be an underestimate. "From cradle to grave, antibiotics have become pivotal in safeguarding the overall health of human societies."

So the dire phrasing from head officials may be warranted. There are now infections like carbapenem-resistant enterobacter that are resistant to nearly all antibiotics, even to so-called drugs of last resort. Worryingly, some of these last resort drugs are being used extensively in animal agriculture.

According to the World Health Organization, more antibiotics are fed to farmed animals than are used to treat disease in human patients. Doctors overprescribe antibiotics, but huge amounts of antibiotics are used in fish farming and other intensive animal agriculture, up to four times the amount used in human medicine. Why? "Suboptimum growth to slaughter weight caused by unsanitary conditions can be compensated with the addition of antibiotics to feed." Instead of relieving any stressful overcrowded unhygienic conditions, it may be cheaper to just dose the animals with drugs.

In this way, factory farms are driving the growth of antibiotic-resistant organisms that cause human diseases. "This may help bolster the industry's bottom line, but in the process, bacteria are developing antimicrobial resistance, which affects human health."

In the United States, the FDA reports that 80% of antimicrobial drugs in the United States are used in food animals, mainly to promote growth in this kind of high-density production. This can select for antibiotic-resistant bacteria like methicillin-resistant Staph aureus, or MRSA, considered a serious threat in the United States.

These industrial pig operations may provide optimal conditions for the introduction and transmission of MRSA. U.S. pork producers are currently permitted to use 29 antibiotic drugs in feed--all without a prescription. Antiobitics are currently added to about 90% of pigs starter feeds.

When animals receive unnecessary antibiotics, bacteria can be come resistant to the drugs, then travel on meat to the store, and end up causing hard-to-treat illnesses in people.

MRSA present in retail raw meat may serve as a possible source of bacterial infections of food preparers in the food industry and the hands of consumers in the home. Once MRSA gets into our homes on meat, it can transfer to our cutting boards, knives, and onto our skin at a rate similar to the rate of transmission from touching an infected patient contaminated with MRSA. Washing of hands after touching raw pork is advised.

I know I've already covered this topic before, but it never fails to shock me that the meat industry can get away with something so forcefully and universally condemned by the public health community. What other industrial sector could get away with putting people at such risk? It speaks to the combined might of the livestock industry and the pharmaceutical industry in holding sway over our democratic process, no matter what the human health consequences.

If you've missed my other MRSA videos, check out:

And for more on this critical issue in general:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Jellaluna / Flickr

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Why are Chickens Fed Prozac?

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Between 1940 and 1971, the synthetic estrogen DES was prescribed to several million pregnant women with the promise that it would "help prevent miscarriages." Problems were first highlighted in 1953 when it became clear that DES was not only ineffective but potentially harmful. However, a powerful and emotive advertising campaign ensured that its use continued until 1971, when it was found to cause cancer of the vagina in the daughters of the mothers who took it. DES was also used to stunt the growth of girls who were predicted to grow "abnormally tall." As one pediatric textbook put it in 1968, "excessive tallness in girls can be a handicap ... it provides difficulty in the purchase of smart clothes; the victim is ineligible for certain sought-after professional positions such as air line hostess; and poses problems in selecting suitable dancing partners."

What most people don't know is that the greatest usage of DES was by the livestock industry, used to improve "feed conversion" in cattle and chickens. Within a year of approval, DES was fed to millions of farm animals. Although it was shown to be a human carcinogen in 1971, DES used in meat production was not completely banned until 1979. (Now, the meat industry just uses different synthetic estrogen implants.) Even decades after DES was banned, we're still seeing its effects--an elevation of birth defects even down to the third generation.

Arsenic is another human carcinogen that was fed to chickens. This time by the billions. The arsenic not only ends up in the meat (as I've talked about previously in Arsenic in Chicken and How Many Cancers Caused by Arsenic Laced Chicken?), but also in the feathers, which are fed back to the animals. Because a third of the bird is inedible, the industry takes billions of pounds of heads, bones, guts, and feathers and uses them as fertilizer and animal feed. This feather meal is fed back to chickens, pigs, cows, sheep, and fish. Straight feathers are not particularly nutritious; so guts, heads, and feet may be added for a little extra protein, and manure added for minerals. The problem is that feather meal used as animal feed could contribute to additional arsenic exposure in persons who consume meat. This gave researchers at John Hopkins University and Arizona State an idea. By testing feather meal, they might be able to find out what else chickens are fed. In their study, "Feather Meal: A Previously Unrecognized Route for Reentry into the Food Supply of Multiple Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products," (highlighted in my video, Illegal Drugs in Chicken Feathers) they found that all feather samples tested positive for antibiotic type drugs (between two and ten different kinds in each sample), including fluoroquinolones, which have been banned for years. Either the poultry industry is illegally still using the stuff, or it's being used in other animals fed to the chicken. Regardless, when feather meal is fed back to chickens, they are getting exposed to this drug that is against the law to feed to chickens, creating a cycle of re-exposure to banned drugs.

Then it just gets weirder. The feathers contained a half dozen other drugs: Prozac, an antihistamine, a fungicide, a sex hormone, and caffeine. Why doesn't the poultry industry just say no? Evidently, the antihistamines are to combat the respiratory problems from packing so many tens of thousands into the confinement sheds, and the caffeine helps keeps the chickens stay awake so they eat more and grow faster.

The drugs fed to chickens are one reason used to explain why poultry has been tied to increased cancer risk. See Chicken Dioxins, Viruses, or Antibiotics?.

The most concerning drugs currently in the U.S. poultry supply are the antibiotics, though. See, for example:

Ironically, not only may antibiotics in chicken contribute to antibiotic resistant infections, but to the infections in the first place. Check out my video Avoiding Chicken to Avoid Bladder Infections.

Then as if adding potentially harmful chemicals to the chickens themselves wasn't bad enough, more are added in the processing plant: Phosphate Additives in Chicken.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr

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Our Tax Dollars Subsidize Unhealthy Foods

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Why do food companies sell junk? Because unhealthy commodities are highly profitable. This is in part because of their "low production cost, long shelf-life, and high retail value," which create perverse incentives for industries to market and sell more junk. In a study highlighted in my video, Taxpayer Subsidies for Unhealthy Foods, researchers at the University of Cambridge stated, "Coca-Cola's net profit margins, for example, are about a quarter of the retail price, making soft drink production, alongside tobacco production, among the most profitable industrial activities in the world." One of the reasons production costs are so low is that we tax-payers subsidize it.

Distinguished UNC Professor of Nutrition, Barry Popkin, writes:

"For more than a century, Western governments have invested heavily in lowering the costs of animal products and some basic cash crops [such as sugar]. Accordingly, Western diets have shifted during the past century, especially after World War II, to include more animal sourced foods--meat, poultry, dairy, seafood, and eggs [as well as more sugar and corn syrup]. During this same period, however, we have begun to realize that a healthy diet actually requires fewer animal products and empty calories, and more vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains. Redressing this balance is a complex task requiring not only a shift in agricultural investment and policy, but also changes in social preferences that have developed over decades, in part due to dollar menu meat."

Why is chicken so cheap? In the nine years that followed the passage of the '96 Farm Bill, corn and soy were subsidized below the cost of production to make cheap animal feed. So U.S. tax-payers effectively handed the chicken and pork industry around $10 billion dollars each.

What if we instead subsidized healthy foods? Or taxed harmful ones? Every dollar spent taxing processed foods or milk would net an estimated $2 in healthcare cost savings. Every dollar spent making vegetables cheaper would net $3, and subsidizing whole grains could net over a one thousand percent return on our investment.

Unfortunately, we can't count on Big Broccoli. The produce sector lacks the extensive funding that went to create the National Dairy Council, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, and the American Egg Board.

Even if we removed the hundreds of billions of dollars in annual subsidies for animal products, it might not be sufficient to tip the balance in favor of healthier diets. According to Professor Popkin, "We have created societies in the West that value and consume meat, dairy, poultry, fish and seafood. Over several generations, a particular way of life has been promoted that has shifted expectations about diet to include large amounts of animal-sourced foods"--the concept that a meal centers around some hunk of meat.

The idea that animal products should form the basis of our diet has been scientifically debunked, but remains the social aspiration of billions of people. As we in the West slowly come to accept that our diets and eating habits are not healthy, it is to be hoped that this will change policies not only here, but throughout the world.

For more on the power Big Food's hold over our political system, check out videos such as:

My video series on corporate influence over our federal nutrition guidelines may also be enlightening:

And if we really wanted to save our country money we could start by trying to wipe out some of our leading killer chronic diseases:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: Rakka / Flickr

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Does Antioxidant Intake Matter for Stroke and Heart Disease?

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In my video Food Antioxidants and Cancer, I talked about how antioxidants from whole plants are associated with lower cancer risk. It turns out that total antioxidant capacity of diet may also be protective against stroke, the world's leading cause of death after heart disease. This is in contradiction to all the antioxidant supplement studies that failed to show benefit. This may be because the food antioxidant studies took into account thousands of different compounds, in doses obtained from a usual diet, rather than individual nutrients at unnaturally high levels.

The buildup of oxidized fat is considered the hallmark of fatty streak formation, the earliest manifestation of atherosclerotic plaques. The oxidation of fat can happen outside the body, every time we cook it, but oxidized fats are not only formed in foods, but may also be generated during digestion, especially in stomach acid. Our stomach may be like a "bioreactor for the oxidation of high-fat, cholesterol-rich foods. Muscle foods contain large amounts of endogenous catalysts which accelerate fat oxidation." As poultry sits in our stomach, the oxidation may build up minute by minute.

Turn out chickens are bled of only about half their blood, and the remaining residual can be a powerful promoter of fat oxidation, so there are those in the industry advocating an additional decapitation step, but if oxidation is the problem, antioxidants can be part of the solution.

We know antioxidant pills don't work. While extensive experimental data "have revealed a central role for oxidative stress in the stiffening of our arteries and suggested a potential role for 'antioxidant' treatment in cardiovascular disease, experimental data has not translated into clinical benefit. Most antioxidant vitamin trials have failed to reduce heart disease and death and may in fact even be detrimental. As a result, some have even questioned the supposedly central role of oxidative stress in the disease process." The fact that pills didn't work was described as a critical blow to the whole free radical theory of aging.

But high-dose single-antioxidant supplements are not a good substitute for the very complex antioxidant network of thousands of compounds in foods, present at concentrations far below those used in those pill trials. No one had ever looked at the overall effect of the complex antioxidant network in our diet in relation to our leading killer, coronary heart disease... until now. A large prospective population-based cohort study, highlighted in my video Food Antioxidants, Stroke, and Heart Disease, measured total antioxidant capacity of people's diets: "The total antioxidant capacity measures, in one single value, the free-radical-reducing capacity of all antioxidants present in foods and all the synergistic effects." They observed that "higher total antioxidant capacity of diet was statistically significantly associated with lower risk of incident heart attack in a dose-response manner," meaning, potentially, the more high antioxidant plant foods in one's diet, the better.

Which foods have the highest antioxidant content? See:

It's the heme iron in chicken blood that may be contributing to fat oxidation in the stomach. That's one of the targets of the Meat Additives to Diminish Toxicity.

More on reducing stroke risk can be found in my videos Preventing Strokes with Diet and Whole Grains May Work As Well As Drugs.

I have more than 150 videos on heart disease. Heart Disease Starts in Childhood and One in a Thousand Ending the Heart Disease Epidemic are among two of the most recent.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr

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Peeks Behind the Egg Industry Curtain

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The American Egg Board is a promotional marketing board appointed by the U.S. government whose mission is to "increase demand for egg and egg products on behalf of U.S. egg producers." If an individual egg company wants to run an ad campaign, they can say pretty much whatever they want. But if an egg corporation wants to dip into the 10 million dollars the American Egg Board sets aside for advertising every year, because the board is overseen by the federal government, corporations are not allowed to lie with those funds. This leads to quite revealing exchanges between egg corporations that want to use that money and the USDA on what egg companies can and cannot say about eggs.

Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act I was able to get my hands on some of those emails. Of course a lot of what I got were pages with nearly all of the text blacked out (you can see these in my video, Who Says Eggs Aren't Healthy or Safe?). But I did find some illuminating correspondence. For example, one email shows an egg company trying to put out a brochure on healthy snacking for kids. But because of existing laws against false and misleading advertising, the head of the USDA's poultry research and promotion programs reminds the company that eggs or egg products cannot be couched as being healthy or nutritious. "The words nutritious and healthy carry certain connotations, and because eggs have the amount of cholesterol they do, plus the fact that they're not low in fat, [the words healthy and nutritious] are problematic." This is the United States Department of Agriculture saying this!

However, the USDA official helpfully suggests, "I believe you can say something that's just as strong if not stronger, that is 'naturally nutrient-dense.'" Why can we say eggs are nutrient-dense but not nutritious? Because there's no legal definition of nutrient-dense. We can say Twinkies and Coca Cola are nutrient dense, but legally, we can't say something is nutritious unless it's actually... nutritious.

For example, the egg industry wanted to run an ad calling eggs a nutritional powerhouse that aids in weight loss. The USDA had to remind the industry that they can't portray eggs as a diet food because of the fat and cholesterol content. In fact, eggs have nearly twice the calories of anything that can be called "low-calorie."

"Nutritional powerhouse" can't be used either. Fine, the industry said, they'll move to plan B, and headline the ad "Egg-ceptional Nutrition." They couldn't say that either because, again, given the saturated fat and cholesterol you can't legally call eggs nutritious. So the headline ended up as, "Find true satisfaction," and instead of weight loss they had to go with "can reduce hunger." The USDA congratulated them on their cleverness. Yes, a food that when eaten can reduce hunger--what a concept!

They can't even say eggs are "relatively" low in calories. Can't say eggs are low in saturated fat--they're not. Can't say they're relatively low in fat, they're not. Can't even call them a rich source of protein, because, according to the USDA, they're not.

It's illegal to advertise that eggs pack a nutritional wallop, or that they have a high nutritional content. Eggs have so much cholesterol, we can't even say they "contribute nutritionally." Can't say eggs are "healthful," certainly can't say they're "healthy." Can't even say eggs contribute "healthful components."

Since we can't say eggs are a healthy start to the day, the USDA suggests a "satisfying start." Egg corporations can't call eggs a healthy ingredient, but they can call eggs a "recognizable" ingredient. Can't truthfully say eggs are good for us, either. By law, according to the USDA, the egg industry "needs to steer clear of words like 'healthy' or 'nutritious.'"

For a food to be labeled "healthy" under FDA rules, it has to be low in saturated fat (eggs fail that criteria) and have less than 90mg of cholesterol per serving (even half an egg fails that test). For the same reason we can't tout ice cream for strong bones, we can't say eggs are healthy because they exceed the threshold for cholesterol.

Egg corporations aren't even allowed to say things like "Eggs are an important part of a well balanced, healthy diet" on an egg carton because it would be considered misleading according to the USDA's National Egg Supervisor, since eggs contain significant amounts of fat and cholesterol and therefore can contribute to the leading killer in the United States, heart disease.

The industry can't afford to tell the truth about the eggs, or even the hens that lay them. The industry crams five to ten birds in cages the size of a file cabinet their whole lives, but when providing footage to the media, the American Egg Board instructs, "do not show multiple birds in cages--they look too crowded and open us up to activist criticism."

Not only is the industry barred from saying eggs are healthy, they can't even refer to eggs as safe because more than a hundred thousand Americans are food poisoned by Salmonella from eggs every year.

The egg board's response to this egg-borne epidemic is that Salmonella is a naturally occurring bacterium. An internal egg industry memo didn't think that should necessarily be the key message, fearing that "it may be counterproductive by implying there is no avoiding Salmonella in eggs aside from avoiding eggs altogether."

The food poisoning risk is why the American Egg Board can't even mention anything but eggs cooked hard and dry. No soft-boiled, no over-easy, no sunny-side up--because of the Salmonella risk. The American Egg Board's own research showed that the sunny-side up cooking method should be considered "unsafe."

In light of bird flu viruses, both the white and yolk must be cooked firm. The VP of marketing for the Egg Board complained to the USDA saying they'd "really like to not have to dictate that the yolks are firm," and cites a Washington Post article saying runny yolks may be safe for everyone except pregnant women, infants, elderly, or those with chronic disease. It turns out it was a misquote--eggs can't be considered safe for anyone.

Instead of safe, they can call eggs "fresh," the USDA marketing service helpfully suggests. But they can't call eggs safe, and they can't say eggs are "safe to eat." They can't even mention safety at all.

Wait a second, not only can eggs not be called healthy they can't even be called safe? Says who? Says the United States Department of Agriculture.

For more peeks behind the egg industry curtain see:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr

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Chicken Salmonella Outbreaks Show Food Safety Systems Failure

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Salmonella causes more hospitalizations and more deaths than any other foodborne illness, and it's been on the rise. Salmonella causes a million cases of food poisoning every year in the U.S., and over the last decade or so the number of cases has increased by 44%, particularly among children and the elderly. And chicken is the number one cause of Salmonella poisoning.

Starting in Spring 2012, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) documented more than 600 individuals infected across 29 states with a particularly virulent strain of Salmonella (one in three were hospitalized). Investigations pointed to Foster Farms--the sixth largest chicken producer in the US--as the most likely source of the outbreak. The CDC warned people, but nothing was done. Foster Farms apparently continued to pump out contaminated meat for 17 months.

Though there's only been a few hundred cases confirmed, for every confirmed case the CDC estimates 38 cases slip through the cracks. So Foster Farms chicken may have infected and sickened more than 15,000 people.

When USDA inspectors went to investigate, they found 25% of the chicken they sampled was contaminated with the outbreak strain of Salmonella, presumed to be because of all the fecal matter they found on the carcasses.

In their February 2014 issue, Consumer Reports published a study on the high cost of cheap chicken, finding 97% of retail chicken breast off store shelves was contaminated with bacteria that can make people sick. 38% of the salmonella they found was resistant to multiple antibiotics (considered a serious public health threat by the CDC). Consumer Reports suggested the cramped conditions on factory chicken farms may play a role, and indeed new research shows the stress of overcrowding can increase Salmonella invasion.

The Pew Commission released a special report on the Foster Farms outbreaks, concluding that the outbreaks bring into sharp focus the ineffectiveness of USDA's approach to minimizing Salmonella contamination in poultry products. The agency's response "was inadequate to protect public health," and to this day thousands of people are getting sick with this preventable foodborne illnesses. One of the Pew Commission's recommendations is to close facilities that are failing to produce safe food and keep them closed until their products stop sending people to the hospital.

What did Foster Farms have to say for itself? They said that their chicken was "safe to eat," that there's "no recall in effect," and that it is "Grade A wholesome." In the same breath, though, they say Salmonella on chicken happens all the time. Their chicken is "Grade A wholesome," but might kill us if we don't handle it right. (See Foster Farms Responds to Chicken Salmonella Outbreak).

As outspoken food safety advocate Bill Marler put it, the poultry industry's reaction to the presence of fecal contamination on chicken is that... sh*t happens.

Salmonella contamination is also a problem in the U.S. egg supply, sickening more than 100,000 people every year. See my video Total Recall.

Other pathogens in meat include Yersinia enterocolitica in pork (Yersinia in Pork), Staphylococcus (U.S. Meat Supply Flying at Half Staph), MRSA (MRSA in U.S. Retail Meat), Hepatitis E (Hepatitis E Virus in Pork), bladder-infecting E coli (Avoiding Chicken To Avoid Bladder Infections), Clostridium difficile (Toxic Megacolon Superbug), and Campylobacter, the most common bacterial chicken pathogen (Poultry and Paralysis).

Poultry appears to cause the most outbreaks, but is all chicken to blame equally? See my video Superbugs in Conventional vs. Organic Chicken.

How was it legal for Foster Farms to continue to ship our meat known to be contaminated with a dangerous pathogen? See my videos Why is selling Salmonella tainted chicken still legal? and Chicken Salmonella Thanks to Meat Industry Lawsuit.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day,and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: zoomar / Flickr

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Organic Milk and Prostate Cancer

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Researchers have expressed concern that since cow's milk contains estrogens, dairy could stimulate the growth of hormone-sensitive tumors. The thought is that the consumption of dairy products could both "promote the conversion of precancerous lesions or mutated cells to invasive cancer and enhance the progression of hormone-dependent tumors."

This was initially postulated based on suggestive population-scale data like a 25 fold increase in prostate cancer in Japan since World War II. What was happening to their diets during that period? A 5, 10, and 20 fold increase in eggs, meat, and dairy consumption, respectively, whereas the rest of their diet remained pretty stable.

But diet wasn't the only major change in Japanese lifestyles over the latter half century. Similarly, even though countries with higher milk consumption tend to have more prostate cancer deaths and countries with lower milk consumption fewer deaths, there could be hundreds of confounding variables. But it certainly does spur interest in studying the possibility.

A recent study from Clemson University represents the other extreme, controlling for as many factors as possible by isolating prostate cancer cells out of the body in a petri dish and dripping cow milk on them directly. The researchers chose organic cow's milk, because they wanted to exclude the effect of added hormones so that they could test the effect of all the growth hormones and sex steroids found naturally in milk.

They found that cow's milk stimulated the growth of human prostate cancer cells in each of 14 separate experiments, producing an average increase in cancer growth rate of over 30%. In contrast, almond milk suppressed the growth of these cancer cells by over 30%.

But just because something happens in a petri dish or a test tube doesn't mean the same thing happens in a person. It's just suggestive evidence that we can use in a grant application to get money to study actual people. This can be done with a retrospective (looking backward) study where we take prostate cancer patients and figure out what they ate in the past, or a prospective (looking forward) study where we look at people's diets first and follow them for a few years and see who gets cancer. The looking back kind are typically referred to as case-control studies, because researchers look at cases of cancer and compare their diets to controls. The looking forward kind are often called cohort studies because a cohort of people is followed forward. Then, if we want to get fancy, we can do a so-called meta-analysis, where you combine all the best studies done to date and see what the balance of available evidence shows.

The latest meta-analysis of all the best case control studies ever done on the matter concludes that milk consumption is a risk factor for prostate cancer. And the latest meta-analysis of all the best cohort studies ever done also concludes that milk consumption is a risk factor for prostate cancer. An even newer study profiled in my video, Prostate Cancer and Organic Milk vs. Almond Milk, suggests that milk intake during adolescence may be particularly risky in terms of potentially setting one up for cancer later in life.

Despite hormone-related cancers being among our top killers, as pointed out in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, "we simply do not know which hormones, and how much, are in the food that we ingest. More effort has been directed at the investigation of illicit use of designer steroids by Olympians and ballplayers than to the investigation of the effect of dietary hormones on cancer and other diseases that affect millions." A proposal is therefore made to monitor levels of steroid and other hormones and growth factors in all dairy and meat-containing foods, though to date this has not been done.

I touched previously on the prostate cancer data in one of my oldest videos, Slowing the Growth of Cancer. Other factors may play into the link between cancer and dairy consumption including industrial pollutants (Industrial Carcinogens in Animal Fat) and IGF-1 (How Plant-Based to Lower IGF-1?), but for more on the hormones in dairy see:

What about all the studies suggesting milk "does a body good"? See my video Food Industry "Funding Effect".

-Michael Greger, M.D

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: Tilemahos Efthimiadis / Flickr

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Superbugs on Retail Chicken

NF-Jan13 Superbugs in Conventional Vs. Organic Chicken.jpg

One of the most concerning developments in medicine is the emergence of bacterial super-resistance--resistance not just to one class of drugs, like penicillin, but to multiple classes of drugs (so-called multi-drug resistance). In the 2013 Retail Meat Report, the FDA found that more than a quarter of the Salmonella contaminating retail chicken breast were resistant to not one but five or more different classes of antibiotic treatment drugs.

Throughout history there has been a continual battle between humans and pathogens. For the last half century, this battle has taken the form of bugs versus drugs. When we developed penicillin, the U.S. Surgeon General declared, "The war against infectious diseases has been won." However, the euphoria over the potential conquest of infectious diseases was short lived.

In response to our offensive, bacteria developed an enzyme that ate penicillin for breakfast. In fact, bacteria can excrete such large quantities of the enzyme that they can destroy the drug before it even comes into contact. So we developed a drug that blocks the penicillin-eating enzyme. That's why you may see two drug names on an antibiotic like Augmentin--one is the actual antibiotic (amoxicillin), and the other is a drug that blocks the enzyme the bacteria tries to use to block the antibiotic (clavulanate). But the bacteria outsmarted us again by developing a blocker blocking blocker--and so it goes back and forth. However hard we try and however clever we are, there is no question that organisms that have "been around for three billion years, and have adapted to survive under the most extreme conditions, will always overcome whatever we decide to throw at them."

So we went from first generation antibiotics, to second generation antibiotics, to third generation antibiotics. We now have bacteria that have evolved the capacity to survive our big-gun third generation cephalosporins like ceftriaxone, which is what we rely on to treat life-threatening Salmonella infections in children.

Where are these super-duper-superbugs found? According to one study profiled in my video, Superbugs in Conventional vs. Organic Chicken, "almost 90% were isolated from chicken carcasses or retail chicken meat."

But what if we only ate antibiotic-free organic chicken? In the first such study ever published, researchers compared multidrug-resistant bacteria in organic and conventional retail chicken meat. All of the conventional chicken samples were contaminated; however, the majority (84%) of organic chicken meat samples was also contaminated. So 100% versus 84%. Organic is definitely better, but odds are we could still be buying something that could make our family sick.

Where do these antibiotic resistant bacteria come from if organic producers are not using antibiotics? A possible explanation is that day-old chicks come from the hatcheries already infected with these bacteria before they arrive at the farms. Or, they could become contaminated after they leave the farm in the slaughter plant. Organic chickens and conventionally raised chickens are typically all slaughtered at the same plants, so there may be cross-contamination between carcasses. Finally, factory farms are dumping antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria-laden chicken manure out into the environment. Researchers can pick up antibiotic-resistant genes right out of the soil around factory farms. So even meat raised without antibiotics may be contaminated with multi-drug resistant bacteria.

In a cover story in which Consumer Reports urged retailers to stop selling meat produced with antibiotics, the researchers noted some store employee confusion: "An assistant store manager at one grocery store, when asked by a shopper for meats raised without antibiotics, responded, 'Wait, you mean like veggie burgers?'" On second thought maybe the employees weren't so confused after all.

I addressed this issue previously in video such as:

Isn't it illegal to sell meat contaminated with dangerous bacteria? Unfortunately no. See why in my video Salmonella in Chicken & Turkey: Deadly But Not Illegal. Reminds me of the case I wrote about in Supreme Court case: meat industry sues to keep downed animals in food supply.

-Michael Greger, M.D

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: Chilanga Cement / Flickr

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