May 13, 2011 -- First they were riding on bedbugs. Now, drug-resistant superbugs are showing up in supermarket meat. Raw beef, chicken and turkey from Detroit grocery stores contained methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a sinister strain of bacteria that doesn't respond to typical antibiotics, researchers reported Wednesday.
It may sound scary, but it's no reason to go vegetarian, experts say.
"We've known for a long time that raw meat and poultry purchased in supermarkets can be contaminated with bugs that can make us sick, like salmonella and E. coli. As long as we clean our hands and our utensils and we cook the food, we kill the bacteria," said Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. "Even though this is a new bug, that shouldn't change anything. It should just reinforce all those messages."
The study, reported online Wednesday in Emerging Infectious Diseases -- the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's journal, is not the first to find MRSA in meat. But very few have ever come out of the United States, so it's making headlines nationwide.
"Previous studies have shown MRSA in pork and beef, but we found MRSA poultry in our study," said report author Dr. Yifan Zhang, assistant professor in the department of nutrition and food science at Wayne State University in Detroit, who said she was surprised at the stir her study created.
"The most important thing in this study is, we don't want to scare people," Zhang said. "Overall, the U.S. food supply is safe."
Unlike other food borne bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus thrives in gashes rather than guts. It lives on your skin instead of in your intestines. So handing the meat is riskier than eating it, Zhang said.
"Wash your hands before and after handling meat, and if you have cuts on your hands, wear gloves," she said, adding that normal soap and cleaning products are sufficient to kill the germ.
MRSA infection rates -- in hospitals and the community at large -- have declined in the past decade, according to CDC statistics. Nevertheless, the study raises important questions about where the meaty MRSA is coming from -- the animals or the humans who handle their meat.
"It's possible that MRSA could be getting into the animals themselves," said Schaffner. "The authors say that's another reason we should be careful to not misuse antibiotics in animals. But an animal goes though an awful lot of processing before it lands on the supermarket shelves. The bugs could have been picked up during the processing phase."
Most healthy people are not at risk for a Staphylococcus aureus infection. In fact, one in three people carries the bacteria on their skin or in their nose and never knows it. But the finding of MRSA in grocery meat should serve as a reminder to keep clean and cook well, Schaffner said.
"We should always remember: The food in our supermarket is not sterile. We live in a germy world and we have to respect that."