07/29/2016 12:39 EDT | Updated 07/29/2016 12:59 EDT

Yes, You Can Catch Superbugs From Your Chicken Dinner

Tim Graham via Getty Images
LAMBOURN, UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 17: Free-range chicken of breed Isa 257 roams freely at Sheepdrove Organic Farm, Lambourn, England.

It sounds like a script for a scary blockbuster Hollywood movie.

But it's fast becoming a chilling reality.

Imagine a not-too-distant future where the survival of mankind hangs in the balance because modern medicine's frontline defenders -- antibiotics -- are being outsmarted by deadly microscopic enemies.

I'm talking about the emergence of so-called "superbugs."

Consider this: It's been revealed that much of the raw packaged chicken sold in supermarkets all across North America is likely to be contaminated.

Of ever greater concern, some of the strains of superbugs crawling all over your chicken dinner can no longer be killed by most types of antibiotics.

A big part of this problem is the systemic use of non-therapeutic (unnecessary) growth-promoting antibiotics in factory farming. This is what's mostly creating new breeds of drug-resistant superbugs.

And if you eat non-organic chicken, then you're all the more at risk.

This is not exaggeration. In fact, in the United States, alone, more than two million people are infected by drug-resistant germs each year, according to a report published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And many of them have eaten superbug-infested supermarket chicken.

Before you get too alarmed, I should point out that these dangerous bacteria are ordinarily killed during the cooking process. But if the chicken -- or any other kind of factory-farmed meat -- is spoiled or improperly cooked, people can easily become infected.

For instance, an investigation in Canada exposed some shocking findings. All told, 100 samples of packaged raw chicken cuts -- involving some of the most familiar brands in the poultry business -- were put under a microscope in a laboratory.

Amazingly, no less than two thirds of the samples were revealed to be contaminated with E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter. And these bacterial poisons included the kinds that can cause drug-resistant infections. Actually, virtually all of them were resistant to at least one form of antibiotic.

Furthermore, some of them proved to be immune to as many as half a dozen different types of antibiotics. In other words, they had mutated into potentially life-threatening superbugs.

Though all the chicken products used in this investigation were purchased at major supermarkets in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, this isn't just a Canadian problem. Broilers raised in the U.S. are given just as many antibiotics as they are north of the border.

And it's also worth noting that Canada is a big importer of American poultry. It also exports lots of chicken to the U.S. as well. So this is becoming a pervasive health risk that all of North America's tens of millions of meat eaters are increasingly vulnerable to.

In response to this emerging health crisis, many doctors and scientists now insist there's ample evidence that chicken farmers are over-using antibiotics, particularly the kinds that are also used to treat humans.

In fact, farmers across North America routinely give them to healthy flocks. This is because of antibiotics' extraordinary ability to make broilers grow much larger than normal, and at a faster rate.

Yet rules proposed by the FDA to limit their use in America have never been implemented due to opposition from Congress, most notably by politicians representing farm states.

Similarly, there are no legal limits on the use of antibiotics in the water and feed given to Canada's chickens.

Meanwhile, the medical community continues to worry that its worst nightmare may become reality in the not-too-distant future. Among those most concerned is Dr. Yazdan Mirzanejad, who is a Canadian specialist in infectious diseases.

In a television news media interview he cautions: "I think the era of antibiotics therapy is very close to being over."

Working at the Surrey Memorial Hospital in Greater Vancouver, he's encountering an increasing number of patients who have been made seriously sick by antibiotic-resistant superbugs. They include superbugs that are resistant to up to 11 different kinds of commonly-used frontline antibiotics.

It's therefore no big surprise that Dr. Mirzanejad is fearful of civilization's return to a pre-1930s era when the leading cause of death in humans was infectious diseases and illnesses.

In North America, these included the common flu and the biggest killer of all up until the 1930s -- pneumonia.

A resurgence in deadly strains of the flu also has the World Health Organization (WHO) very much on edge. That's why it's warning governments around the globe about the looming threat of another serious avian flu pandemic -- or some other equally virulent global outbreak.

In fact, the WHO announced in 2014 that superbugs now pose a major global health threat and that "the implications will be devastating". According to Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general for health security at the WHO: "We have a big problem now, and all of the trends indicate the problem is going to get bigger."

Ironically, this all means that society will need to count on the effectiveness of antibiotics more than ever before.

What can you do to protect yourself?

Consider paying a little extra for organic chicken and other kinds of organic meat. That's probably the best way to keep superbugs at bay. It'll also buy you peace of mind. In other words, you'll know that frontline antibiotics are likely to work the next time you need them - especially if your life is on the line.

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