A dangerous antibiotic-resistant “superbug” has been found in the North American food supply for the first time, according to researchers from the University of Saskatchewan.
The unwelcome discovery was made during routine testing of raw squid imported from South Korea, which revealed a strain of bacteria resistant to carbapenems, a class of antibiotics used to treat life-threatening infections.
Carbapenems are a “last resort” antibiotic, used when common antibiotics fail. In April, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that antibiotic resistance had become a serious, global threat to public health, listing the spread of carbapanem resistance as a major contributing factor.
Carbapanem-resistant bacteria have been detected in the environment and in animals used for food, but this latest discovery marks the first time they’ve been found in food itself.
According to Joseph Rubin, assistant professor of veterinary microbiology at the University of Saskatchewan and head of the research team, that raises the stakes considerably because it means “the risk of exposure in the public goes beyond people with travel histories and beyond people who have been previously hospitalized,” extending to the general public.
“Finding this organism in food is extremely disturbing,” Rubin told the Washington Post. “This widens the possibilities for the spread of resistance.”
As Maryn McKenna, who first broke the news, indicated: Beyond the obvious, that this is a first finding of a resistance factor where it has not previously been, here are some concerns: Because the carbapenem-resistant bacteria tend to be gut bacteria, anything that conducts them into your gut—like, for instance, swallowing them—is problematic.
The issue isn’t that the bacterium is going to cause a food-borne illness immediately; the bacteria carrying this gene was not a disease-causing variety. Rather, the concern is that the DNA conferring this resistance passes from this bacterium into the vast colony of diverse bacteria that live in your gut for your entire life, becoming incorporated into your gut flora and posing a risk of drug-resistant illness at some future point when the balance of your immune system slips.
The fact that this was found on seafood, which is often undercooked and sometimes eaten raw, increases the risk of transmission. It’s also said to be possible that bacteria containing the gene could spread to other seafood or other foods in that store, or in the kitchens of anyone who takes them home.