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One Man’s Meat Is Another Man’s MRSA

A new study found almost half of all meat and poultry from grocery stores in five American cities were contaminated with the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. Those who like their filet mignon rare, like the French, or prefer it raw (steak tartare) also take note: The American Meat Institute is hitting back, saying the only thing unsafe here is the study’s findings.

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It doesn’t make for easy pre-dinner reading. The study, in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, says 47% of the meat contained the bacteria, 52% of which was resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics, including three MRSA strains. Fortunately, it’s rendered harmless when cooked but the study warns that densely-stocked industrial farms, where food animals are steadily fed low doses of antibiotics, are “ideal breeding grounds” for drug-resistant bacteria.

The report by the Translational Genomics Research Institute (or TGen for short) collected and analyzed 136 samples of beef, chicken, pork and turkey from 26 retail stores in Los Angeles, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Flagstaff and Washington, D.C. “For the first time, we know how much of our meat and poultry is contaminated with antibiotic-resistant ‘Staph’, and it is substantial,” said Lance B. Price, the report’s senior author.

The authors suggest the government should conduct a more comprehensive inspection program for this type of bacteria, which can cause a range of illnesses from minor skin infections to pneumonia and meningitis. Paul S. Keim, another of the study’s authors, says, “Now we need to determine what this means in terms of risk to the consumer…This study shows that much of our meat and poultry is contaminated with multidrug-resistant Staph.”

Or does it? The American Meat Institute says that federal data indicate that human infections with Staph comprise less than 1% of total food-borne illnesses. “This small sample is insufficient to reach the sweeping conclusions conveyed in a press release about the study,” it says. Price disagrees, telling Pay Dirt, “The high prevalence of Staph in meat and poultry made our sample size completely sufficient to support our conclusions. These are really high rates. This is a robust study. It was consistent across the country.”

The FDA says it continues to work “to better understand this issue in order to make science-based policy decisions to help ensure the safety of our nation’s food supply.” It cites a pilot study with the FDA’s scientists in the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System and University of Maryland that examined retail meats in the D.C metro area for the presence of antibiotic-resistant Staph. Of 1,174 samples tested for MRSA, or Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, only 2 were found.

Price says he was looking for all types of Staph: “I find it ironic that we pay money to bring drug-resistant bacteria into our homes when we buy fresh meat and poultry.”

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  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.