How to Prevent the Spread of Drug-Resistant Bacteria in Your Kitchen

Story at-a-glance -

  • Two million American adults and children become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year. At least 23,000 of them die as a direct result of those infections
  • According to the CDC, as many as 22 percent of antibiotic-resistant illness in humans is linked to food, and research has shown that nearly half of all meats sold in the US harbor drug-resistant bacteria
  • These drug-resistant bacteria can easily spread during food preparation, via cutting boards, kitchen counters, and plastic gloves used during food preparation
  • To avoid cross-contamination with other foods and spread of potentially harmful bacteria, use a designated cutting board for raw meat and poultry, and never use this board for other food preparation
  • Triclosan, a potent antibacterial agent found in many soaps and detergents, is also spurring the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and is therefore best avoided

By Dr. Mercola

According to a report1 by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), published in October 2013, two million American adults and children become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year. At least 23,000 of them die as a direct result of those infections, and even more die from complications.2  

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has repeatedly ignored the elephant in the room when it comes to the promulgation of antibiotic-resistant disease, namely modern factory farming practices where antibiotics are routinely fed to animals to promote growth.

Despite the fact that both penicillin and tetracyclines are used in human medicine, about half of the total sales for these two antibiotics end up in animal feed.

All in all, an estimated 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the US end up in livestock. Needless to say, the impact of agricultural antibiotics on human disease is quite significant and cannot be ignored.

Unless you're eating organically raised meats, every piece of meat you eat will give you a small dose of antibiotics, and this low-dosing is a major part of the problem, because when the bacteria are not killed by the antibiotic, they become stronger and develop resistance through mutation.

The CDC has previously concluded that as much as 22 percent of antibiotic-resistant illness in humans is in fact linked to food, and research has shown that nearly half of all meats sold in the US harbor drug-resistant bacteria!

Most of the meat sold in American grocery stores and restaurants comes from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which can house tens of thousands of animals under one roof, in unsanitary, disease-ridden conditions. It's these conditions that allow foodborne pathogens to flourish, and indeed studies have shown that the larger the farm, the greater the chances of contamination.

Your Kitchen May Be a Major Source of Drug-Resistant Pathogens

These drug-resistant bacteria can also easily spread during food preparation. As reported by Reuters,3 cutting boards used to prepare raw poultry can be a major culprit in the spread of drug-resistant bacteria. As noted by Dr. James R. Johnson, an infectious diseases researcher:

"If other foods go on those boards before the boards get cleaned, or even after they're cleaned if the cleaning isn't 100 percent effective, the other foods, which may not get cooked, or not as thoroughly as poultry, likely would get contaminated and so could possibly pose an even higher risk of transmission to humans than the poultry products themselves."

In a recent Swiss study,4 researchers collected cutting boards and discarded plastic gloves from the kitchen in their hospital and private homes around Switzerland, Germany, and France.

The cutting boards were then swabbed for bacteria. In total, 154 cutting boards were collected from the hospital kitchen over the course of 16 months. Ten of them tested positive for antibiotic-resistant E. coli. Of the 144 boards collected from private homes, five of them also tested positive for the harmful bacteria. Of the gloves collected, half were contaminated with drug-resistant bacteria.

In light of these findings, the researchers urge all cooks to carefully wash your hands, and to be mindful of the fact that cutting boards and plastic gloves used during food preparation can be a source of transmission of pathogenic bacteria that can lead to very serious illness.

To avoid cross-contamination with other foods and spread of potentially harmful bacteria, I strongly suggest adhering to the following recommendations:

  • Use a designated cutting board for raw meat and poultry, and never use this board for other food preparation, such as cutting up vegetables. Color coding your cutting boards is a simple way to distinguish between them
  • To sanitize your cutting board, be sure to use hot water and detergent. Simply wiping it off with a rag will not destroy the bacteria
  • For an inexpensive, safe, and effective kitchen counter and cutting board sanitizer, use 3% hydrogen peroxide and vinegar. Keep each liquid in a separate spray bottle, and then spray the surface with one, followed by the other, and wipe off
  • Coconut oil can also be used to clean, treat, and sanitize your wooden cutting boards. It's a powerful destroyer of all kinds of microbes, from viruses to bacteria to protozoa. Olive oil is another alternative. The fats will also help condition the wood

Antibacterial Detergents Can Do More Harm Than Good

In an ironic twist, if you're using commercially available antibacterial detergents to clean your kitchen or wash your hands, you may actually be causing far more harm than good. Triclosan, a potent antibacterial and antifungal agent used in a large number of everyday products such as soaps, detergents, toothpaste, deodorants and antiperspirants, and other cosmetics, has been around for about three decades. It can now even be found in clothing and children's toys. It's so widely used; it's even been detected in human blood, urine, and breast milk. Unfortunately, this excessive use of triclosan is also spurring the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

According to recent research,5, 6 the compound actually helps staph bacteria to colonize in the human nose. Of the 90 participants tested, 41 percent had detectable levels of triclosan in their snot, and this presence, the researchers found, can double a person's risk of carrying and spreading the staph infection. As reported by Science News:7

"Because triclosan usually kills bacteria, the finding was a surprise, says [microbiologist Blaise] Boles, who works to understand why only some people harbor staph. A person carrying the microbe in his or her nose, he says, has a much higher risk of a staph infection, which can occur in the skin and blood and cause pneumonia and produce toxic shock syndrome.

...In the lab, the researchers found that staph grown with nonlethal doses of triclosan were more 'sticky,' attaching better to human proteins, as well as to glass and plastic surfaces. Nonlethal doses of triclosan in snot could help staph hunker down in the nose, giving it an advantage over other nose-dwelling microbes, Boles says."

Besides promoting drug-resistant bacteria, triclosan has also been found to have both estrogenic and androgenic activity and has been linked to hormone disruption in animals. One 2006 study8 found that triclosan induces changes in the thyroid hormone-mediated process of metamorphosis of the North American bullfrog, and a 2009 study9 demonstrated that triclosan significantly decreases circulating concentrations of the thyroid hormone thyroxine (T4) in male rats.

Also Beware of Common Allergen in Disinfectant Wipes

On a side note, if you're a fan of disinfectant wipes, beware that many of the products on the market (whether they're designed to disinfect or not) can contain a preservative called methylisothiazolinone (MI), which can cause serious allergic reactions. While initially thought to be safe, it was only after it became widely used that it was discovered it could easily be one of the very worst preservatives on the market.

Drug-Resistant Staph Is a Serious Public Health Problem

Staph bacteria are one of the most common causes of skin infections in the US, but they're typically mild and can be easily treated. Antibiotic-resistant staph however, is a whole other story. And methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) has become a very serious public health problem. In 2005, there were close to 100,000 cases of invasive MRSA infections in the US, which lead to more than 18,600 deaths. HIV/AIDS killed 17,000 people that same year.10 According to more recent statistics from the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA), MRSA now kills more Americans each year than the combined total of emphysema, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson's disease, and homicide.11

Unlike typical staph bacteria, MRSA is much more dangerous because it has become resistant to virtually all of the broad-spectrum antibiotics used to treat it. This includes methicillin, oxacillin, penicillin, and amoxicillin. Moreover, this "super bug" is constantly adapting, outsmarting even newer antibiotics. Because MRSA is so difficult to eradicate, it can easily progress from a superficial skin infection to a life-threatening infection.

Hospitals are perhaps the most significant havens of drug-resistant bacteria, including MRSA. According to the most recent report12, 13 by the CDC, hospital-acquired infections now affect one in 25 patients. In 2011, an estimated 722,000 patients contracted an infection during a stay in an acute care hospital in the US, and about 75,000 of them died as a result of it. That amounts to just over 205 deaths from hospital-acquired infections every day of the year!

Natural Approaches to Preventing Spread of Drug-Resistant Bacteria

First and foremost, everyone needs to take the issue of antibiotic use seriously. This is of course an issue that must be addressed on a large scale, both within modern medicine and agriculture, but you also need to evaluate your own use of antibiotics, and avoid taking them -- or giving them to your children -- unless absolutely necessary. I also recommend reducing your exposure to antibiotics by choosing organic, grass-fed or pastured meat and dairy products for your family, as organic standards do not permit the use of antibiotics for growth-promotion purposes. Avoiding this regular low-dosing of antibiotics can go a long way toward safeguarding your health. Aside from that, here are a few other sound methods that can help prevent the spread of infectious bacteria of all kinds:

1. Wash Your Hands... and Make Sure Your Doctor Does Too. Handwashing is one of the oldest and most powerful antibacterial treatments. Be sure to use a mild soap and avoid all antibacterial soaps. Remember, triclosan can contribute to the development of even more resistant bacteria. More importantly, antibacterial agents are not necessary for soap to effectively sanitize your hands. Guidelines to proper hand-washing include:

  • Wash your hands for 10 to 15 seconds with warm water
  • Use plain soap without any antibacterials, especially triclosan
  • Clean all the nooks and crannies of your hands, including under fingernails
  • Rinse thoroughly under running water
  • In public places, use a paper towel to open the door as a protection from germs that harbor on handles

There's no need to become obsessive about washing your hands, however. In fact, if you wash them too frequently you can actually extract many of the protective oils in your skin, which can cause your skin to crack and bleed, and your skin is actually your primary defense against bacteria -- not the soap. It is rare for a germ on your skin to cause a problem -- it is typically only an issue when you transfer that to your nose, mouth, or an open wound like cracked skin. So obsessive-compulsive washing can actually increase your risk of getting sick by providing an entryway for potentially dangerous pathogens.

2. Avoid Sharing Your Personal Items. Since most drug-resistant bacteria, including MRSA, can spread by contact with contaminated objects, keep personal items like towels, clothing, bed linens, athletic equipment, razors, and more to yourself.

3. Use Natural Disinfectants. As with antibacterial hand soaps, antibacterial house cleaners are best avoided. A natural all-purpose cleanser that works great for kitchen counters, cutting boards, and bathrooms is 3% hydrogen peroxide and vinegar. Just put each liquid into a separate spray bottle, then spray the surface with one, followed by the other.

4. Consider Copper Kitchen Fittings. On a larger scale, making door handles, taps, and light switches from copper can help defeat antibiotic-resistant super bugs, according to scientists.14 Researchers have discovered that copper fittings rapidly kill bugs in hospital wards, succeeding where other infection control measures fail. Lab tests show that the metal can effectively kill off MRSA along with other dangerous germs, including the flu virus and the E. coli food poisoning bug. Steel and aluminum surfaces, on the other hand, were shown to increase bacteria colonization over time.