By KEN ALLTUCKER , GANNETT NEWS SERVICE
PHOENIX — Meat and poultry products purchased at grocery stores in five cities frequently were contaminated with strains of drug-resistant staph bacteria that can cause skin infections and other diseases, scientists say.
About the study
Researchers studied 136 beef, chicken, pork and turkey samples purchased from 26 grocery stores in Chicago; Flagstaff, Ariz.; Fort Lauderdale; Los Angeles; and Washington, D.C. The meat and poultry products came from 80 brands.
Percentage of samples they found containing staph bacteria:
Turkey: 77 percent
Pork: 42 percent
Chicken: 41 percent
Beef: 37 percent
Researchers found 47 percent of meat and poultry samples contained Staphylococcus aureus, and 52 percent of those contaminated products had staph bacteria resistant to three or more types of antibiotics, according to a Translational Genomics Research Institute and Northern Arizona University study published last week in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.
The study does not address what health effect — if any — the staph-tainted meat and poultry have on consumers. Such bacteria should be killed if meat is properly cooked, though it’s possible to spread meat-borne pathogens through improper hygiene and sanitation while preparing food in the kitchen.
But scientists say the study points to another potential risk: Widespread use of antibiotics in farming and food-animal production may be linked to the spread of drug-resistant staph in the nation’s food supply.
“It is really indicative of all the antibiotics we are using on the farm,” said Lance Price, the TGen scientist who led the study. “We didn’t think about food as a potential risk factor for this bacteria. With this data, we have to start looking at this.”
Staphylococcus aureus is a common bacterium even healthy individuals may carry on the skin or nose. It can be spread in settings such as hospitals, fitness centers or among people who live in crowded conditions.
Staph infections often only cause minor skin infections, but infections can worsen and spread to an individual’s bloodstream, urinary tract, lungs or heart, according to Mayo Clinic.
Meat-industry officials say it is not surprising the TGen study found contaminated meat samples because staph bacteria are so widespread.
“This is not a particularly alarming study,” said Hilary Thesmar, senior director of scientific and regulatory affairs for Washington-based National Turkey Federation.
Thesmar said consumers always should practice food-safety measures such as hand-washing and thoroughly cooking meat and poultry products.
“This (study) should not put consumers into any type of situation where they would worry,” Thesmar said.
Other meat-borne pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella have long been associated with health risks, but this study suggests the average consumer also faces widespread exposure to staph bacteria through meat products sold at grocery stores.
Modern industrial farms where animals are crowded together and continually fed antibiotics through food and water are a likely way that drug-resistant bacteria spread, the study said.
However, the study said more research would need to follow all aspects of food production — from the farm to the grocery store — to pinpoint the contamination source.