staph-aureus-bacteria-16790-thumb-200x208-532.jpgThe internet is abuzz with the findings of a study funding by The Pew Charitable Trusts done by Lance B. Price, Ph.D., senior author of the study and Director of TGen’s Center for Food Microbiology and Environmental Health Nationwide. The study found that U.S. meat and poultry is widely contaminated Multi-drug-resistant Staph:

… Nearly half of the meat and poultry samples — 47 percent — were contaminated with S. aureus, and more than half of those bacteria — 52 percent — were resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics, according to the study published today in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

This is the first national assessment of antibiotic resistant S. aureus in the U.S. food supply. And, DNA testing suggests that the food animals themselves were the major source of contamination.

Although Staph should be killed with proper cooking, it may still pose a risk to consumers through improper food handling and cross-contamination in the kitchen.

Researchers collected and analyzed 136 samples — covering 80 brands — of beef, chicken, pork and turkey from 26 retail grocery stores in five U.S. cities: Los Angeles, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Flagstaff and Washington, D.C. …

The American Meat institute hit back:

… A new Pew Commission-funded study misleads consumers about U.S. meat and poultry, which is among the safest in the world.

Authors of the new study, which involved a small number of samples from retail stores, claim that their findings suggest that a significant public health risk exists. However, federal data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show steady declines in foodborne illnesses linked to consumption of meat and poultry overall and indicate that human infections with Staphylococcus aureus ( “Staph”) comprise less than one percent of total foodborne illnesses.

It is notable that the study involved only 136 samples of meat and poultry from 80 brands in 26 retail grocery stores in five U.S. cities. This small sample is insufficient to reach the sweeping conclusions conveyed in a press release about the study. By contrast, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture studies the prevalence of bacteria, their work involves thousands of samples collected over long periods of time to ensure accuracy.

While the study claims that the many of the bacteria found were antibiotic resistant, it does note that they are not heat resistant. These bacteria are destroyed through normal cooking procedures, which may account for the small percentage of foodborne illnesses linked to these bacteria. As with any raw agricultural product, it is important to follow federal safe handling recommendations included on every meat and poultry package that urge consumers to wash hands and surfaces when handling raw meat and poultry and to separate raw from cooked foods to ensure that food is safe when served. …

Both groups are somewhat right. Dr. Price is right to raise the alarm that drug-resistant Staph is a risk to human health and that antibiotic use needs to be monitored for long-term health. He also correctly points to the real risk of cross-contamination in home and commercial kitchens. The AMI rightly points to the small sample size as less than persuasive. However, it also falls back on “just cook the shit out of it” argument that it always raises and ignores the real risk of bringing contaminated product into kitchens across the country. As I said the Los Angeles Times:

William Marler, a leading food safety attorney, said it was helpful to test meat samples available in stores because the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service focused its testing on meat production facilities.

“It’s good to see more people doing retail testing because it shows us that our meat is far less sanitary than most consumers would think,” he said.

I think more studies would make the issue clearer to both consumers, the AMI and the Government Regulators. We did a $500,000 study (5,000 samples) on non-O157 Shiga-toxin E. coli in hamburger and are just finishing up a smaller bacteria study (just in the Seattle area) on chickens – regular and organic. I think the more tests the better. Science is a good thing.