Learning From Europe
In 2006, scientists in the Netherlands were the first to trace infections in a farming family caused by MRSA from people back to their pigs.
By 2007, the same group of Dutch scientists reported that the strain they found, called ST398, was responsible for more 20% of all the MRSA found in people in that country.
In 2009, a study that tested more than 2,217 samples of raw meat in the Netherlands found nearly 12% were contaminated with MRSA, with 85% of the MRSA bacteria belonging to the ST398 strain.
“What we’re learning from Europe is that there are these strains of multidrug-resistant and methicillin-resistant Staph aureus that can move from food animals to farm workers and then to their families and get established in the community that way,” Price says.
Consumer advocates say this new study may help to explain the growing number of drug-resistant staph infections that arise from the community, rather than a health care setting.
“Normally we think of MRSA exposure in a hospital setting, but clearly, it’s coming into your home on raw meat. You could be getting it through handling raw meat,” says Caroline Smith DeWaal, JD, director of food safety for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in Washington, D.C.
DeWaal recently co-authored a white paper for CSPI on the problem of antibiotic resistance in food-borne pathogens, but she was not involved in the current research.
“The best precaution would be to handle meat and poultry with gloves, especially if they have any wounds on their hands,” DeWaal says.
The danger is that drug-resistant bacteria could enter the body, usually through a small cut in the skin, causing an infection that's tough for doctors to treat.
These infections often start out looking like a small pimple, but they sometimes escalate to becoming pus-filled abscesses that cause fever and pain.
Infectious disease, experts, however are quick to point out that any tie between drug-resistant staph bacteria in meat and human infections, at least in the U.S., is still circumstantial.