27 January 2009

More MRSA in meat, and not just pork

In my excitement over the paper by Tara Smith and team on Friday, I failed to sufficiently emphasize an important new finding. (I included it in my story for ScientificAmerican.com, but it was toward the end.) I feel it deserves a post of its own, so here it is:

The Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority of the Netherlands has found MRSA in 12% of 2,217 samples of meat on sale in the country, including not just pork, but beef, lamb, chicken, turkey and game birds, and 85% of the bacterial isolates were the"pig strain" ST 398.

We have talked before (all posts here) about the potential risk of MRSA in meat, especially ST 398 because it seems to have found a preferred host in pigs. In this study, however, the meat most likely to carry ST 398 was not pork, but turkey, followed by chicken and then by veal, and then by pork.

So what does all this mean? It's still probably too early to tell: Recall that the first isolations of this bug were in 2004, there have still been only a few papers on it, and this finding by Smith and team is the first identification of the strain in the United States. (Though not in North America, as it was identified in Canada in 2007.) It seems likely that ST 398 may have found a niche in other food animals, and that it contaminates the meat when the animals are slaughtered.

The consensus among the Dutch, though, is that this is an effect of the use of antibiotics in food animals. The romantic image of the Netherlands is as a cute little collection of postage-stamp family farms, but the reality, especially in the southeast of the country, is that they have substantial industrial-sized farms housing thousands of animals on relatively small properties. The only way to grow animals efficiently under such conditions is to keep very close tabs on potential illness, and liberally deploy antibiotics when necessary. (NB, I am not talking here about sub-therapeutic, growth-promoting use, but rather prophylactic antibiotics, given to an entire herd when a certain percentage of the herd shows sign of illness.) Evidence for this, according to the current study's authors: Meat sold as "biologic" — that's "organic," in the US — had a much lower rate of contamination with ST 398.

There are still very few reports of human illness from ST 398, though of those reports, some are quite serious, including wound infections and endocarditis. The concern here, as the researchers interested in it have been saying from the start, is that someone will inadvertently colonize themselves with the organism by touching their eyes or nose while handling meat contaminated with ST 398. Colonization does not necessarily lead to disease, but it does lead to a far greater pool of organism potentially spreading unmonitored through human and animal populations, swapping resistance and virulence factors as it goes.

So, you know what I'm going to say: Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands.

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