Study ties chicken trucks to bacteria

November 27, 2008|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,

Anyone who's ever driven behind a truck hauling chickens knows to expect a powerful odor and even a few feathers in its wake. But poultry carriers also apparently trail an airborne plume of potentially harmful bacteria, according to a new study by Johns Hopkins researchers.

The results suggest that motorists and those who live along roads traveled by chicken trucks may be exposed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the researchers say. They urged further study and possibly changing transport methods in areas of intense poultry production such as the Delmarva Peninsula.

Scientists at Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health tailed 10 poultry trucks on U.S. 13 down the Delmarva Peninsula in summer and fall of last year, as the vehicles hauled their loads to a processing plant in Accomack, Va. With the windows of their car down and the air conditioning off, the researchers drove two to three car lengths behind the trucks, so they could get a good dose of the vehicles' slipstream.

The researchers collected elevated levels of bacteria in and on their car, including some that were resistant to antibiotic drugs used to treat human illnesses. Their findings were published in the inaugural issue of Journal of Infection and Public Health.

Bloomberg researcher Ellen Silbergeld and others have previously reported that chicken industry workers and the public might be at greater risk of exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria when handling live, raw or inadequately cooked poultry. Critics have questioned the routine feeding of antibiotics to chickens, which is approved by the federal government, because bacteria can develop a resistance to the drugs and render them ineffective in treating human illnesses.

The National Chicken Council issued a statement criticizing the study, calling it "unfocused, unrealistic, and rather unsafe."

Only two strains of the Enterococcus bacterium detected by the researchers are potentially harmful to humans, according to Steve Pretanik, the industry group's director of science and technology. The study did not attempt to identify which types it collected.

Pretanik also said the researchers "tailgated" the chicken trucks, which he contended was an unsafe practice and an unrealistic measure of any health risk. Few motorists would follow a truck that closely, he argued.

"Tailgating a tractor-trailer is much more dangerous than being around live chickens," he contended in the statement.

Ana Rule, a Bloomberg research associate and the study's lead author, said further research is needed to gauge the risk, but this study showed that antibiotic resistant bacteria are coming from the trucks.

"We drove the same roads without following chicken trucks, and we didn't find the bacteria," she said.

And while most motorists might not follow trucks as closely, or would at least roll up their windows, Rule said that their study points to a broader exposure that merits further scrutiny.

"If it's getting into the car, it's getting into the environment," Rule said. "There's people living along that road. The next thing we would like to test is how the trucks are impacting the community."

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