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April 19th, 2011

U.S. Meat, Poultry Widely Contaminated with Staph Bacteria


Obama’s burger may have a new ingredient: drug resistant staph

Last week, eaters were treated to another food safety reality check: drug resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus are in our meat, and it’s likely coming from the way livestock are produced on crowded factory farms.

Researchers collected and tested 136 meat and poultry samples from five U.S. cities, encompassing 80 brands of beef, chicken pork and turkey from 26 grocery stores. They found 47 percent of the meat and poultry samples were contaminated with S. aureus, and more than half of those bacteria were resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics. The study, published last week in the journal Clinical Infections Diseases, concludes that food animals themselves were the major source of contamination, presumably raised in factory farms where they are routinely fed low-doses of antibiotics. MRSA, methicillin-resistant S. aureus, was found in three of the samples.

Just how big are these farms, and how fast are they growing? According to our Factory Farm Map, which analyzed the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture Census data for beef and dairy cattle, hogs, broiler meat chickens and egg-laying operations, the total number of livestock on the largest factory farms rose by more than 20 percent between 2002 and 2007. At the same time, the number of dairy cows and broiler chickens nearly doubled.

On the heels of the study release, the American Meat Institute released a statement criticizing the study’s sample size, also noting, “These bacteria are destroyed through normal cooking procedures, which may account for the small percentage of foodborne illnesses linked to these bacteria.”

As Maryn McKenna at the blog Superbug writes, most of the foodborne illness from staph comes not from cooking the meat, but from handling it inappropriately and contaminating household surfaces. According to an AP article on the study, staph infections account for roughly 240,000 cases of food poisoning a year.

So, even if the sample size were small, do we want to take our chances with drug resistant staph in our meat? Probably not. The report is a good reminder that we need strong food safety protections at a time when the federal government is seeking to slash them.

-Darcey Rakestraw

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