Study Finds Drug Resistant Bacteria in US Meat Supply

BlogHer Original Post

On Friday I heard a quick mention on the news about a study showing that much of the meat sold in the United States is tainted by drug resistant bacterias.

This is from an article in the Seattle Times -- Tests Find Drug-Resistant Bacteria in Meat:

Meat in the United States may be widely contaminated with strains of drug-resistant bacteria, researchers reported Friday after testing 136 samples of beef, chicken, pork and turkey purchased at grocery stores.

Nearly half of the samples -- 47 percent -- contained strains of Staphylococcus aureus, the type of bacteria that most commonly causes staph infections. Of those bacteria, 52 percent were resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics, according to a study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

Ground porkThis story reminded me about another article I came across a few weeks ago on Wired.com that talked about the shocking amount of antibiotics being used on farm animals in this country. Would you believe that 80% of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used on farm animals? It's true, and very troubling.

This is from Farm Animals Get 80% of Antibiotics Sold in the US:

Most important to note: Most of the drugs used in animal agriculture and in human medicine are functionally identical. That’s one reason why the overuse of antibiotics in animals is such a concern: When organisms become resistant on the farm to drugs used on livestock, they are becoming resistant to the exact same drugs used in humans.

Are we now starting to see the negative correlation between antibiotic use in livestock and the health of consumers who buy the meat? It certainly seems so.

The antibiotic resistant bacteria being found in this study is also know as MRSA (or Superbug). And according to Wikipedia the number of cases has been increasing significantly:

MRSA was discovered in 1961 in the United Kingdom. It made its first major appearance in the United States in 1981 among intravenous drug users. MRSA is often referred to in the press as a "superbug". The number of MRSA infections in the United States has been increasing significantly. A 2007 report in Emerging Infectious Diseases, a publication of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), estimated the number of MRSA infections in hospitals doubled nationwide, from approximately 127,000 in 1999 to 278,000 in 2005, while at the same time annual deaths increased from 11,000 to more than 17,000.[79] Another study led by the CDC and published in the October 17, 2007 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that MRSA would have been responsible for 94,360 serious infections and associated with 18,650 hospital stay-related deaths in the United States in 2005.[80][81] These figures suggest that MRSA infections are responsible for more deaths in the U.S. each year than AIDS.[82]

Could the rise in MRSA infections have anything to do with our meat supply? From what I have found, there is no known link, but up until now no one has even been looking for a link. Cooking does kill the bacteria, but it's the handling of the raw meat and cross-contamination that poses the greatest risk.

This is from an article in Health Day -- Drug Resistant Staph Bacteria Found in Meat and Poultry Nationwide:

"For the first time, we know how much of our meat and poultry is contaminated with antibiotic-resistant Staph, and it is substantial," said study senior author Lance B. Price, director of TGen's Center for Food Microbiology and Environmental Health.

"The fact that drug-resistant S. aureus was so prevalent, and likely came from the food animals themselves, is troubling, and demands attention to how antibiotics are used in food-animal production today," he added.

Just when I thought I had a handle on the story, it seems the meat industry is pointing the finger at the funding for this study (by the PEW Charitable Trust) as bias. This is from an article in The Daily Herd -- Another Food-Safety Scare, expert calls study "inconsequential":

Once again, bad science is causing a food-safety scare that is confusing consumers and potentially needlessly damaging the entire meat industry.
. . .
Is there any surprise to the livestock and meat science world that the study was supported through a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts as part of The Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming? The Pew Charitable Trust believes that antibiotic use in food production threatens human health (see its website www.saveantibiotics.org).

I think this article assumes that consumers are easily confused and need to be protected from all these scary studies; I don't agree. I believe that consumers should have access to all the information and be allowed to make educated decisions about the risks and benefits of the food they purchase for their family. And I'm not ready to let one expert from the meat industry stop me from wanting to get all the facts about any possible risk to our meat supply.

Anyway, there may be some that see this latest study as a reason to stop buying meat, but most of us (for now anyway) cant give up our carnivorous ways. So, if you take only one thing away from this post, I hope it is this: One thing we can do to protect ourselves from these dangerous bacterias is to be very diligent when it comes to handling raw meat of any kind. Here are some of the tips for handling food given by the USDA:

Shopping

  • Purchase refrigerated or frozen items after selecting your non-perishables.
  • Never choose meat or poultry in packaging that is torn or leaking.
  • Do not buy food past "Sell-By," "Use-By," or other expiration dates.

Storage

  • Always refrigerate perishable food within 2 hours (1 hour when the temperature is above 90 °F).
  • Check the temperature of your refrigerator and freezer with an appliance thermometer. The refrigerator should be at 40 °F or below and the freezer at 0 °F or below.
  • Cook or freeze fresh poultry, fish, ground meats, and variety meats within 2 days; other beef, veal, lamb, or pork, within 3 to 5 days.
  • Perishable food such as meat and poultry should be wrapped securely to maintain quality and to prevent meat juices from getting onto other food.
  • To maintain quality when freezing meat and poultry in its original package, wrap the package again with foil or plastic wrap that is recommended for the freezer.

Preparation

  • Always wash hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after handling food.
  • Don't cross-contaminate. Keep raw meat, poultry, fish, and their juices away from other food. After cutting raw meats, wash cutting board, utensils, and countertops with hot, soapy water.
  • Cutting boards, utensils, and countertops can be sanitized by using a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach in 1 gallon of water.
  • Marinate meat and poultry in a covered dish in the refrigerator.

So the controversy will surely continue. I would hope that this study will at least show our government policy makers that more money needs to go towards making sure our food supply is safe for consumers.

On a side note...

In searching for a video to include in my post, I was finding videos from all the way back in 2008. That's odd, the story just broke on Friday? It seems the FDA and the meat industry have been aware of this problem at least as far back as 2008, and at that time European countries were already testing their meat for these strains of bacteria in an effort to protect their consumers. So why is it that three years later there is still no testing being done in the US? Money? Politics? Both? Then and now, our government requires no testing for these antibiotic resistant bacterias. Personally, I find that a disservice to the American people.

This is from a story first reported on in October of 2008 (at that time the focus was on pork) by KVAL CBS 13:

In the end, this is a story that doesn't have a clear action for consumers to take. What do you think? Will this latest study turn you away from eating meat? Would you like to see our government require meat be tested for these drug resistant bacterias? Let us know your thoughts in comments.

Contributing Editor Catherine Morgan
Also at Catherine-Morgan.com

Photo Credit: naz66.

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