As the U.S. faces continued peanut butter product food recalls and seven deaths due to the recent salmonella outbreak stemming from Georgia-based Peanut Corporation of America, other bad news about our failing food system broke in the heartland. Last week, University of Iowa researchers published the first study documenting methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in swine and swine workers in the United States.
The study, published online in PLoS ONE, a journal for peer-reviewed scientific and medical research, tested 299 pigs and 20 workers from pig farms in Iowa and Illinois and found a strain of MRSA, known as ST398, in 49 percent of the animals and in 45 percent of the humans caring for them.
Staphylococcus aureus, often called staph, are bacteria commonly carried on the skin or in the nose of healthy people. According to the Mayo Clinic, MRSA, a superbug, is a type of staph that is resistant to the broad-spectrum antibiotics commonly used to treat it. Deaths from MRSA infections in the U.S. have eclipsed those from many other infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS, and recent data show that MRSA caused 94,000 infections and over 18,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2005.
Most MRSA infections occur in hospitals or other health care settings, such as nursing homes. Older adults and people with weakened immune systems are most at risk, but more recently, otherwise healthy folks have been hit as a different strain of MRSA has surfaced in gyms and nursery schools.
Dr. Tara Smith, an associate professor of epidemiology in the University of Iowa College of Public Health and lead author of the study noted that because ST398 was found in both animals and humans, it suggests transmission between the two. She warns that the findings suggest that once MRSA is introduced, it may spread broadly among both swine and their caretakers.
As Iowa ranks first in the nation in pig production, the researchers recommend surveying retail meat products for MRSA contamination, studying larger populations of swine and humans to define the epidemiology of MRSA within swine operations, and assessing MRSA carriage rates in other livestock.
Smith told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that a national survey of meat products should be conducted and other animals like beef, poultry, lamb and goat should also be checked out for MRSA. Smith added that her study reinforces the importance of vigilance in food handling and cooking procedures. “It’s likely that cooking will kill any MRSA present on the surface of meats, but anyone handling raw meats should be careful about cross-contamination of cooking areas or other food products, and should make sure hands are washed before touching one’s face, nose, lips, etc.”
Photo: Gretchen Rolland