The new study suggesting that nearly half of all meat and poultry may be contaminated with drug-resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus is not going over well in the animal agriculture industry. One major trade association says that, for starters, it's downright misleading.
The American Meat Institute issued a news release saying the nation’s meat and poultry supply is “among the safest in the world.” The association, representing red meat and turkey processors, took special issue with the size of the study: “It is notable that the study involved only 136 samples of meat and poultry from 80 brands in 26 retail grocery stores in five U.S. cities. This small sample is insufficient to reach the sweeping conclusions conveyed in a news release about the study.”
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“I think the study is a little bit of a red herring,” said Janet Riley, a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, in an interview. “The public health implication is not supported by the data."
Riley said that most antibiotic resistance stems from the drug's use in humans, not animals. Further, she pointed out, the S. aureus contamination may be coming from food handlers, not the livestock itself.
The American Meat Institute’s statement said consumers shouldn’t worry about the safety of their meat because, after all, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that food-borne illness are on the decline overall in the U.S. The statement also says that when raw meat is handled properly and cooked thoroughly, heat will destroy bacteria whether or not they are resistant to antibiotics.
Both points are well-taken. The CDC's Trends in Foodborne Illness in the United States, 1996–2009 clearly states: "Over the past 10 years, CDC has documented through the FoodNet system a 20% reduction in illnesses caused by the pathogens it tracks."
As for cooking, pretty much everyone agrees that meat and poultry need to be handled properly.