You’re going to want to read this before you take another bite.
New research by the University of Iowa College of Public Health and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy could have you second-guessing your choice for dinner tonight. Apparently, whenever you serve pork you may unknowingly be serving up an unwanted side dish right along with it.
You may recall…
I’ve written before about the dangers of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (MRSA). This nasty superbug—a by-product of our long love affair with antibiotic drugs—mows down at least 185,000 people a year with food poisoning.
But it gets worse…
MRSA infections can target the blood, lungs, organs, and skin (it’s one of those “flesh-eating” bacteria you’ve heard so much about). And those infections can be deadly since they’re resistant to most common antibiotics.
In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2005 alone 18,650 people who lost their lives had a documented case of MRSA during their hospitalization.
MRSA Makes a Move to the Meat Case
Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem worldwide. And really, the way we’ve abused antibiotics we’ve only got ourselves to blame.
On the one hand there are the doctors that hand out antibiotics like tic tacs for every sniffle, sneeze and cough. And this despite the fact that they’re perfectly useless against the common cold.
Then on the other hand, there is Big Agriculture dosing livestock with antibiotics to promote growth and to ward of the effects of the unsanitary conditions the animals are kept in. The problem has gotten so bad that estimates are that more than 70 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are being used on chickens, cows, and pigs that aren’t even sick.
And one of the consequences of all this overuse of course is this MRSA pickle we now find ourselves in.
Were winning the battle against MRSA and other antibiotic-resistant superbugs…right?
It’s easy to think so. After all, you never hear much about them in the news anymore. That’s got to be a good sign…right?
Don’t be fooled.
The mainstream media has a notoriously short attention span. They’ve merely moved on because, well, MRSA just isn’t the hot topic it once was. Instead they’re off chasing the next sensational story of the moment. (Something about the Kardashian family no doubt.)
The fact is that up to 278,000 hospital patients are being treated for MRSA infections nationwide every year. I don’t know about you, but I’d call that far from under control.
So, naturally, limiting our exposure to this potentially deadly bug should be a top priority. And that’s why those recent findings that I mentioned earlier are so disturbing. Because, suddenly, it looks like simply sitting down for a meal could come at the cost of exposing yourself to this ugly bug.
The study, published in the January 2012 issue of the journal Plos One, covers the largest ever sampling of raw meat products tested for MRSA in the United States. The researchers pulled 395 raw pork samples from grocery store shelves in 36 different stores across three different states (Iowa, New Jersey, and Minnesota). The samples included everything from pork chops to sausage.
What they found was, frankly, rather alarming. Heck, the results even surprised the researchers. Twenty-six of the samples that were tested were contaminated with MRSA. When we transfer those findings to the real world that means than potentially 7% of the meat that we buy every day in the grocery store…and serve to our families…is carrying the MRSA superbug.
And that wasn’t the only unwelcome surprise.
Shockingly, the researchers reported that they found no significant difference in MRSA contamination between factory-farmed conventional pork products and those that came from pigs that were raised without growth-promoting antibiotics. A finding that at face value appears to be a real blow to the antibiotic-free meat movement.
But wait, not so fast.
You’ve really got to dig a little deeper to see the reality of the situation. Things are not always what they seem.
Our first clue is that the researchers admit that their findings regarding MRSA and alternative meat might have a lot more to do with the handling of the raw meat at the processing plant rather than how the pigs were actually raised.
Gee, ya think? I’d say when you look at the whole story this is likely the case.
Our second important clue is revealed when you look more closely at the numbers.
Of the twenty-six samples that were contaminated with MRSA seven came from alternative pork products. Six of those seven were from the same retail chain across two states. And, perhaps most telling of all, four of them were from the very same store. This, of course, makes a scenario in which they were contaminated during handling and then shipped together to the same stores seem much more likely.
We already know from previous studies that antibiotic-free meats are less likely to harbor superbugs. An earlier study on poultry in the Netherlands found that both chickens that were raised without antibiotics and wild fowl had lower incidents of MRSA than meat from conventional factory farmed birds.
In addition, another United States study found MRSA in four out of nine pigs from conventional factory farms, but didn’t find any of the bugs in pigs from alternative antibiotic-free farms.
The bottom line is whenever possible you should still be choosing free-range and antibiotic-free meats. And although some of the big factory farms have started producing their own organic meats because of the potential for mishandling and cross contamination I’d still recommend you skip the big “brand-name” producers.
Instead look for locally grown small-farm products whenever possible. Try your local farmer’s market.
Oh, and don’t forget that the sniffles are never a good reason to take antibiotics. Check out Surviving Cold Season 101 for some advice on avoiding getting a cold in the first place and dealing with one once you have it.
Dr. Allan Spreen
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