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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

MRSA – methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – The risk to our food supply and to us.

I travel a lot, so I bought one of those electronic books so I can download books and newspapers whenever I want. I just finished reading “Our Pigs, Our Food, Our Health,” an Op-ed by Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times. I have now lost my appetite.

His Op-ed is the story of “[t]he late Tom Anderson, the family doctor in this little farm town in northwestern Indiana,” who uncovered in his town a truth that is becoming more and more apparent, or should be – “The larger question is whether we as a nation have moved to a model of agriculture that produces cheap bacon but risks the health of all of us. And the evidence, while far from conclusive, is growing that the answer is yes.”

Some 50 people in Dr. Anderson’s town contracted MRSA , or “’pimples from hell,’ he called them — and quickly became lesions as big as saucers, fiery red and agonizing to touch. They could be anywhere, but were most common on the face, armpits, knees and buttocks. Dr. Anderson took cultures and sent them off to a lab, which reported that they were MRSA, or staph infections that are resistant to antibiotics.” And, then Dr. Anderson died.

A study published in October 2007 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) (Klevens et al: Invasive methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infections in the United States JAMA 2007; 298: 1753-1771) estimated almost 100,000 MRSA infections in 2005, and nearly 19,000 deaths in the United States. In comparison, HIV/AIDS killed 17,000 people that year.

I have been following the rise in MRSA in our food supply and the risks we may continue to face by factory farming. Several month ago I blogged about an Op-ed by Heather Moore Heather Moore, senior writer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, “Your supper & superbugs” on MRSA and its relationship with antibiotics fed to animals. A couple of her more concerning points:

* Approximately 70 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States aren’t given to human patients — they are fed to farmed animals. The filthy, crowded conditions on factory farms are breeding grounds for disease.

* One USDA study showed that 66 percent of beef samples were contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and scientists at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have reported that 96 percent of the chicken flesh they tested was contaminated with antibiotic-resistant campylobacter bacteria.

* Another study conducted by the CDC indicated that chicken sold in supermarkets is often tainted with potentially fatal bacteria called Enterococcus faecium. This bacterium was not even affected by Synercid, a drug commonly used to treat antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

* A recent Belgian survey showed that MRSA has been found in 68 percent of the pig farms in that country. In 37 percent of the cases, the farmer and the farmer’s family carried pig MRSA — a variant of human MRSA.

Also, according to another report I read on All Headline News, a new study published in Veterinary Microbiology found methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is widely common in Canadian pig farms and pig farmers, signaling to some that animal agriculture as a source of the deadly bacteria. The Veterinary Microbiology study (Khanna et al. Veterinary Medicine 2007) was the first to show that North American pig farms and farmers commonly carry MRSA.  Researchers looked for MRSA in 285 pigs in 20 Ontario farms and found MRSA at 45 percent of farms (9/20) and in nearly one in 4 pigs (71/285). One in 5 pig farmers studied (5/25) also were found to carry MRSA, a much higher rate than in the general North American population. The strains of MRSA bacteria found in Ontario pigs and pig farmers included a strain common to human MRSA infections in Canada.

Also, several months ago I commented on Andrew Schneider, Senior Correspondent for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer post on his "Secret Ingredients" blog: that Tara Smith, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa Department of Epidemiology, and her graduate researchers found MRSA in more than 70 percent of the pigs they tested on farms in Iowa and Illinois. In what is apparently the first testing of swine for MRSA in the U.S., Smith and her team swabbed the noses of 209 pigs on 10 farms. They also found the bacteria among livestock workers employed by those hog operations. The research tested 20 workers at the Iowa swine farms and found that 45 percent carried the same MRSA bacteria as the pigs.

As they say in my business – “the evidence is mounting” – what are we going to do about it?  Well, obamafoodorama is thinking about it – Will America Get Porked? Nicholas Kristof’s Op Ed On Hog MRSA, And The Potential For Conflict of Interest Between The Pork Lobby And The CDC  Also see, Big Pig Strikes Back.

  • D. L. Whitehead

    What I want to know: Is the MRSA finding its way onto the retail cuts of pork in the grocery stores?
    I’m really not sure many home cooks can safely store meat and poultry, avoid cross-contamination during and after preparation–and cook meat and poultry to a safe temperature. Being at risk of contracting a MRSA infection from simply handling the meat would be almost intolerable.
    During the cold months of the year, my hands are cracked and, occasionally, bleeding. (They are cracked and bleeding from washing my hands to prevent cross-contamination.) Am I going to become infected with MRSA when I trim my pork spare ribs St. Louis-style or when I make my fresh breakfast sausage?
    Research testing to see if MRSA has made its way onto retail cuts of pork should be relatively easy and inexpensive. Any deep-pocket food safety advocates willing to foot the bill?