New reasons not to buy meat and poultry at the local grocery.

This is a rough month for carnivores and others who like eating safe meat.

Two studies tested beef, chicken, pork and turkey purchased from groceries in six cities from Seattle to Ft. Lauderdale.

What they found was enough to make a caveman queasy.

The latest study conducted in Seattle is by Mansour Samadpour, a leading bacterial microbiologist who heads the Institute for Environmental Health, which is a national network of food-safety laboratories.

Staphylococcus aureus Photo from McGill University

Samadpour’s staff purchased 100 packages of chicken parts and fryers from 10 Seattle-area groceries during March. The analysis of these samples found that 65 percent of the birds tested had Campylobacter, 19 percent had Salmonella, 2 percent had E. coli or Listeria. USDA inspectors at all slaughter houses or processing plants watch for these poisonous bacteria.

But Samadpour also found that that an alarming number of the poultry samples had bacteria that the government doesn’t look for:

S. aureus is a fast-acting toxin, often causing gastrointestinal symptoms within 30 minutes, and, according to the Centers for Disease Control, it sickens at least 240,000 people a year.

Samadpour told me last night (4/18/2011) that 10 percent of the samples contained the more worrisome Multidrug-Resistant S. aureus or MRSA. Handling contaminated chicken with a cut or break in the skin is a screaming invitation for MRSA to enter the body.

The study was funded by Seattle food-safety lawyer William Marler, who, as Cold Truth reported in the past had commissioned Samadpour’s labs to test 5,000 samples of beef for the presence of non-O157 strains of E. coli.

The findings showed that millions of pounds of beef sold throughout the country were contaminated with strains of dangerous E. coli that the USDA neither outlaws nor apparently cares much about.

Food scientist Mansour Samadpour and food safety lawyer William Marler © Photo Andrew Schneider

“I funded the chicken study because I’m concerned that consumers don’t understand how many pathogens may be on the chicken they purchase and serve to their families,” Marler told me yesterday.

Marler said that he was concerned because one of the samples was contaminated with E. coli 0126, a bacteria usually only found in beef.

All the contamination most likely occurs because of sloppiness in the processing facilities, where the meat comes in contact with feces, which causes most of the dangerous bacteria to flourish, Marler says.

Echoing recommendations from federal food-safety agencies, Marler says great care must be used when handling the uncooked chicken at home. Poultry must be cooked to 165 degrees, which should kill most of the bacteria that leads to food poisoning.

An exception to that rule may well be Staph-contaminated meat because those toxins are far more resistant to heat and must be cooked more thoroughly to be made safe, food-safety experts say.

That fact alone makes the findings of another group of food scientists more troubling.

A nationwide study by the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) published this month in  the journal  Clinical Infectious Disease reported on the analysis of 136 samples–80 different brands of beef, chicken, pork and turkey. They were purchased at 26 retail grocery stores in Los Angeles, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Flagstaff and Washington, D.C.

Lance Price, senior author of the study, says nearly half of the meat and poultry samples–47 percent–were contaminated with S. aureus. And more bothersome is that more than half of those staph bacteria–52 percent–were resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics.

Drug-resistant strains of S. aureus, are linked to a wide range of human health problems from minor skin infections to life-threatening pneumonia, endocarditis and sepsis.

The scientist say that that theirs is the first national assessment of antibiotic-resistant S. aureus in the U.S. food supply. Their DNA testing suggests that the food animals themselves were the major source of contamination and the Arizona team identifies overcrowded industrial farms, where food animals are steadily fed low doses of antibiotics, as ideal breading grounds for the contaminant.

“The single most effective way to reduce antibiotic-resistant bacteria in food is to stop feeding millions of animals antibiotics,” Price said in a press conference.

Scientist Lance Price

S. aureus infects hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. Prior to the discovery of antibiotics, Staph infections were associated with extremely high mortality rates, Price told me yesterday.

“Our study shows (for the first time) that retail meat and poultry are routinely contaminated with S. aureus that are resistant to multiple antibiotics. These products are potential sources of human exposure and infection from multi-drug-resistant Staph,” said Price who is the director TGen’s Center for Food Microbiology and Environmental Health. “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,” Price said.

Many food-safety activists have expressed concern over the results of the studies.

“This is a public health risk because these bacteria can cause food borne illness.  What makes it even more insidious is the fact that this bacteria is resistant to antibiotics. There needs to be a broader sample, though, to ascertain the extent to which this situation is widespread,” Tony Carbo of Food & Water Watch told me.

The American Meat Institute, the industry’s lead lobbying arm, sent me a statement saying that the sample size is insufficient to reach the sweeping conclusions conveyed by the Arizona scientists. AMI further noted that S. aureus is also carried by household pets.

“Despite the claims of this small study, consumers can feel confident that meat and poultry is safe,” said the group’s president James Hodges. “Federal data show that S. aureus infections in people that are caused by food are uncommon.”

What about the almost 250,000 illnesses that CDC attributes to S. aureus in food each year?

I asked AMI and they finally replied and seemed to indicate that  it wasn’t a lot to worry about.

“While our goal is to get as close to zero foodborne illnesses linked to meat and poultry as science permits, the fact is that the 241,000 estimated human infections with S. aureus from all foods comprise one half of one percent of the total foodborne illnesses that CDC estimates occur annually in the U.S.” said Meat Institute spokesman Tom Super.

–Andrew Schneider



New reasons not to buy meat and poultry at the local grocery. — 1 Comment

  1. There are a few problems with your “facts”. First, antibiotics are not routinely given to animals produced for human consumption. In fact, before slaughter animals are tested for antibiotic residue and if present cannot be slaughtered. Antibiotic use in poultry is rare and when used it is carefully targeted and controlled.

    Second, MRSA is a human infection prevalent in health care facilities, espeically hospitals. Chickens cannot “catch” MRSA as it does not cross between species. That is according to Dr. Lloyd Keck, Vetranarian and professor at the University of Arkansas Department of Poultry Science. He is one of the worlds leading experts on Avian Influenza and poultry disease.

    At a temperature of 140 degrees Fahrneheit flesh and anything harmful to humans “cooks”. Nothing that can hurt a person survives at or above this temperature. The number of 165 degress accounts for error in measurement devices, especially for home use and allows a margin of safety. If rotted meat is fully cooked it won’t make you sick, so just cook it thoroughly.

    Harmful animal disease does not cross between species very well. It is acceptable to feed beef and pork by products as protein to poultry, but it is not acceptable to feed poultry by products back to popultry or beef to beef or swine to swine. Even when deliberately introduced in the lab, it is rare that these can cause infection in different species.

    Some common bacteria like samonilla and E. Coli can infect almost any animal across lines. They are generally present in feces. If that is controlled during meat processing, there is no poblem. USDA rules and oversight at facilites control this agressively. Likewise, producers work very hard to control cross contamination, not just from a 2quality perspective, but to protect from situations that can result in litigation, the promotion of which is obviously the intent of the study you cite.

    Any credible food scientist, vetranarian, or public helath or safety official will testify that 99% of food borne illness originates at the point of preparatiion for consumption. It happens in restaurants, at home and grocery stores as a result of poor food handling practices. In fact, the most dangerous place to eat from a foodborne illness perspective is at a buffet salad bar.

    The article mixes apples and oranges, bad science, and unrelated concepts in an apparent attempt to establish an agenda to benefit litigants and for most people is simply confusing, inciteful, and shocking. For these reasons it is irresponsible and reprehensible. Shame on the lawyers that invented it for their own fudiciary and nefarious reasons. Shame on you for irresponsibly promoting it as fact and science.

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