Tainted Food Epidemic: Staph Bacteria Found on Half of Meat, Poultry Products

Tainted Food Epidemic: Staph Bacteria Found on 25% of Meat, Poultry in Stores
Tainted Food Epidemic: Staph Bacteria Found on 25% of Meat, Poultry in Stores

Consumers headed to the grocery store may soon be giving organic foods a second look, following a national study that found many meat and poultry samples tested contained drug-resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria -- otherwise known as Staph.

The study found that 47% of the meat and poultry samples taken were contaminated with Staph, and of this group, 52% of the bacterial samples found were resistant to at least three types of antibiotics, according to Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), which released the results of the study Friday.

"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," said Lance Price, director of TGen's Center for Food Microbiology and Environmental Health, in a statement.

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"Antibiotics are the most important drugs that we have to treat Staph infections; but when Staph are resistant to three, four, five or even nine different antibiotics -- like we saw in this study -- that leaves physicians few options."

But it could mean that some consumers may start paying a little more for organic meats and poultry, given that these animals are not subjected to daily supplemental antibiotics. The more antibiotics an animal receives, the less effective it generally becomes in warding off antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria that can emerge.

Study samples were taken from a variety of 26 retail grocery stores in Los Angeles, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Flagstaff, Ariz., and Washington, D.C.

Staph bacteria, however, is relatively easy to kill, providing consumers thoroughly cook the meat and poultry. Also important is to avoid improper food handling and cross-contamination in the kitchen. So, wash your hands before and after touching raw meat and poultry, and wash cutting boards that have been used for meat before they come into contact with other foods, especially fruits and vegetables.

People exposed to Staph bacteria can suffer from a range of problems from minor skin infections to life-threatening illnesses such as sepsis, pneumonia and endocarditis. The Mayo Clinic offers this description and assessment of Staph:

Staph infections are caused by staphylococcus bacteria, a type of germ commonly found on the skin or in the nose of even healthy individuals. Most of the time, these bacteria cause no problems or result in relatively minor skin infections.

But staph infections don't always remain skin-deep. In some circumstances, they may invade your bloodstream, urinary tract, lungs or heart.

Severe staph infections usually occur in people who are already hospitalized or who have a chronic illness or weakened immune system. But it is possible for otherwise healthy people to develop life-threatening staph infections.

Although federal food inspectors routinely check meat and poultry in retail stores for four types of drug-resistant bacteria, Staph bacteria isn't one of them, the report notes. TGen says a wider inspection program may be needed.

In breaking down the frequency that Staph was found in various meat and poultry samples, turkey topped the list. According to the study, notes a report in the Arizona Republic, 77% of turkey samples were tainted with Staph, 42% for pork, 41% for chicken and 37% for beef.

While the study pointed to Staph bacteria coming from the animals themselves, a representative from the National Turkey Federation told the Arizona Republic that the way humans handle and process the meat is a likely source of some of the contamination, since the bacteria are often found on people's hands.

Given the amount of money that's at stake for the industry if consumers start fearing to purchase poultry, it seems the National Turkey Federation and TGen will need to, well, talk turkey.