A new report estimates that half the meat and poultry sold in the supermarket may be tainted with the staph germ. That estimate is based on 136 samples of beef, chicken, pork and turkey purchased from grocery stores in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Flagstaff, Ariz. and Fort Lauderdale, reports the Associated Press.

Researchers found more than half contained Staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria that can make people sick. Half of those contaminated samples had a form of the bacteria resistant to at least three kinds of antibiotics. Proper cooking should kill the germs. But the report suggests that consumers should be careful to wash their hands and take other steps not to spread bacteria during food preparation.

“The fact that drug-resistant S. aureus was so prevalent, and likely came from the food animals themselves, is troubling, and demands attention to how antibiotics are used in food-animal production today,” said Lance B. Price, Ph.D., senior author of the study and Director of TGen’s Center for Food Microbiology and Environmental Health.

The American Meat Institute quickly refuted the report, stating that the Pew Commission-funded study misleads consumers about U.S. meat and poultry, which is among the safest in the world.

Authors of the new study, which involved a small number of samples from retail stores, claim that their findings suggest that a significant public health risk exists. However, federal data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show steady declines in foodborne illnesses linked to consumption of meat and poultry overall and indicate that human infections with Staphylococcus aureus ( “Staph”) comprise less than one percent of total foodborne illnesses.

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 press release about the study, the AMI states. By contrast, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture studies the prevalence of bacteria, their work involves thousands of samples collected over long periods of time to ensure accuracy.

While the study claims that the many of the bacteria found were antibiotic resistant, it does note that they are not heat resistant. These bacteria are destroyed through normal cooking procedures, which may account for the small percentage of foodborne illnesses linked to these bacteria. As with any raw agricultural product, it is important to follow federal safe handling recommendations included on every meat and poultry package that urge consumers to wash hands and surfaces when handling raw meat and poultry and to separate raw from cooked foods to ensure that food is safe when served.

According to a new white paper authored by Ellin Doyle, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin’s Food Research Institute, these bacteria are found in half of all human nasal passages – a fact that points to the pervasiveness of this bacteria among people. Doyle’s white paper also noted that only two foodborne outbreaks of the antibiotic resistant strain of this bacteria (“MRSA”) have been identified and both were attributed to food handlers contaminating food – not to the food source itself. S. aureus is also carried by household pets and can be transmitted in healthcare settings.

A 2009 U.S. analysis by Louisiana State University researchers published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology concluded that the bacteria occurs at what they characterized as a “low rate” which the researchers said was “likely due to human contamination.”

While the authors of the Pew-funded paper criticize U.S. production methods and suggest that they cause antibiotic resistant bacteria to develop, Doyle’s paper documents that similar incidence patterns can be observed in livestock in many countries with a variety of different production methods. To read Doyle’s white paper, go to www.amif.org/ht/a/GetDocumentAction/i/67833.

“Despite the claims of this small study, consumers can feel confident that meat and poultry is safe,” said American Meat Institute Foundation President James H. Hodges. “Federal data show that S. aureus infections in people that are caused by food are uncommon. CDC data also show that foodborne illnesses as a whole are declining due to our growing scientific knowledge about how to target and destroy bacteria on meat and poultry.”

Source: AMI, Associated Press, Care2.com