The meat you buy could be contaminated with drug-resistant MRSA
"They hurt real bad," says Joyce Long, 48, a 32-year veteran of the hatchery, where until recently, workers handled eggs and chicks with bare hands. "When we went and got cultured, doctors told us we had a superbug."
Its name, she learned, was MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. This form of staph bacteria developed a mutation that resists antibiotics (including methicillin), making it hard to treat, even lethal. According to the CDC, certain types of MRSA infections kill 18,000 Americans a year — more than die from AIDS.
It wasn't: She, too, had contracted MRSA, as had her husband, Bill, 46, who also works at the facility. Since late 2007, Dean has had monthly relapses. Even the safety glasses, gloves, and smocks workers wear (along with upgraded regular cleaning of equipment) aren't enough to protect them, says Bill. "We work so fast, we often stick ourselves with knives or scissors and get blood on us from head to foot." When a swelling rose over one of his eyes, he was told he might go blind; if the infection progressed to his brain, he'd die.
Did any food safety agency test for MRSA in this plant's chickens, which were then sold to the public and served on American dinner tables? Did any government organization determine the source of the outbreak? Calls to the USDA, CDC, and Arkansas Department of Health yielded a no to both questions; the poultry company that owns the operation did not respond to multiple requests for a comment from Prevention. Yet in recent years, studies have found MRSA in retail cuts of pork, chicken, beef, and other meats in the United States, Europe, and Asia.
To get answers, we investigated how MRSA has entered our food supply with limited government response; we considered the massive use of antibiotics in agriculture and its role in creating resistant microbes like MRSA; and we examined the safety of supermarket meat. Here, we offer our findings and expert advice to protect you and your family.
Are you at risk?
You've probably heard of people contracting certain strains of MRSA in hospitals, where it causes many illnesses: postsurgical infections, pneumonia, bacteremia, and more. Others encounter different types of the bug in community centers such as gyms, where skin contact occurs and items like sports equipment are shared; this form causes skin infections that may become systemic and turn lethal.
You may not have the same close contact with meat that a processing plant worker has, but scientists warn there is reason for concern: Most of us handle meat daily, as we bread chicken cutlets, trim fat from pork, or form chopped beef into burgers. Cooking does kill the microbe, but MRSA thrives on skin, so you can contract it by touching infected raw meat when you have a cut on your hand, explains Stuart Levy, MD, a Tufts University professor of microbiology and medicine. MRSA also flourishes in nasal passages, so touching your nose after touching meat gives the bug another way into your body, adds Smith.
Tainted meat exposed
Extensive research in Europe and Asia has found MRSA in many food animal species, and in the past year, US researchers have begun testing meat sold here. Scientists at Louisiana State University Agricultural Center tested 120 cuts of locally purchased meat and found MRSA in 4 percent of the pork and 1 percent of the beef. A University of Maryland scientist found it in 1 out of 300 pork samples from the Washington, DC, area. And a study in Canada (from which we import thousands of tons of meat annually) found MRSA in 9 percent of 212 pork samples. The percentages may be small, but according to the USDA, Americans eat more than 180 million pounds of meat every day. "When you consider the tiny size of the meat studies, the fact that they found any contamination at all is amazing," says Steven Roach, public health program director for Food Animal Concerns Trust.
In some cases, the tainted meat probably came from infected animals; in others, already infected humans could have passed on MRSA to the meat during processing. Regardless of where it originated, even a small proportion of contaminated meat could mean a tremendous amount of MRSA out there. "We need more US research to figure out what's going on," says Roach.
MRSA is so common in the United States that it accounts for more than half of all soft-tissue and skin infections in ERs. The CDC estimates that invasive MRSA infections (those that entered the bloodstream) number more than 94,000 a year. Even more troubling, if you add up the other types of illnesses MRSA can cause, including urinary tract infections, pneumonia, and inpatient skin infections, the total could be 8 to 11 times more than that, reports a study by epidemiologist William Jarvis, MD, of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. The numbers are high and rising: From 1996 to 2005, MRSA-related hospitalizations increased nearly tenfold.