The new study about drug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus found in meat and poultry samples certainly sounds alarming -- such bacteria can cause serious infections in humans and can even lead to death. But consumers face a relatively small direct threat from the bacteria in food, and a few simple precautions should provide short-term peace of mind.
Long-term peace of mind may take longer. It does seem possible that the meat industry is contributing to antibiotic resistance in some way. The FDA was concerned enough last year to urge that the meat industry use antibiotics only when necessary.
But there’s no doubt that resistance is created in humans. At this point, there just isn’t enough research to say whether antibiotic use in animals is a main cause of the overall increase in drug resistance.
RELATED: Almost half of meat found in stores may have drug-resistant bacteria . Beilei Ge, a food scientist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, tried to put the new findings into perspective. She was co-author of the first U.S. study to find MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus areus, in meat in 2009.
She established that 40% of pork samples were contaminated with such bacteria. Unlike the current study, her observational study wasn’t designed to say where the contamination came from—and after a genetic analysis, researchers found it might have originated from food given to the animal.
In any case, she’s been watching the developing controversy -- and she offered some reassurances.
Unlike E. coli or salmonella, the S. aureus bacteria is unlikely to cause infection in people who eat them.
True, the bacteria can grow and cause toxins, which can make you sick. Foodsafety.gov offers a basic overview of food-related staph illness, and the FDA offers this more thorough examination of S. aureus toxins. Those toxins can be released when the raw meat isn’t kept at a cold enough temperature -- a bad idea on many levels.
The threat from S. aureus-contaminated meat largely comes from contact with skin, Ge says. The primary risk is associated with open cuts or bacteria that establish themselves on the skin. So, she suggests, wear gloves. Simple. Or wash your hands right after you prepare the meat. Again simple. These measures should take care of the direct risk.
As for the source of the staph in meat and poultry, she points out that it can come from human handling of food. Maybe 50% of humans, she says, carry staph in their nose or in their throat. So if a human handler carries staph with poor hygiene, bacteria get into the food.
But, she added: “A study like this causes concern.”