by Marion Nestle
Apr 19 2011

The politics of contaminated meat

By this time, you must have heard about the study in Clinical Infectious Diseases sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts.  The study found nearly half of supermarket meat and poultry samples to be contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus. Half of the contaminated samples were resistant to multiple antibiotics.

Staph causes awful infections.  When I was a child, my mother had a Staph infection that kept her out of commission for what seemed like months in that pre-antibiotic era.  Antibiotics can keep Staph under control, but not if the Staph are antibiotic-resistant.   Staph resistant to multiple drugs are a clear-and-present danger.  No wonder this study got so much attention.

The study provides strong support for the idea that we ought to be reducing use of antibiotics as growth promoters in farm animals, an idea strongly supported by the CDC.

Even though 80% of U.S. antibiotic use is for farm animals, the meat industry strong opposes any proposal to change its practices.

The National Cattleman’s Beef Association responds by attacking the science:

Calling into question the safety of U.S. beef without conclusive scientific evidence is careless and misleads consumers. Pew Charitable Trusts, an agenda-driven organization on this issue, funded this study, which concludes that its extremely small sample size was ‘insufficient to accurately estimate prevalence rates’ and that ‘public health relevance of this finding is unclear.’ The study’s authors clearly call into question the validity of their own study. The bottom-line is U.S. beef is safe and is part of a healthy, well-balanced diet.

The American Meat Institute reassures the public that meat is safe.  After all, you are going to cook your meat, aren’t you?  In any case, the responsibility rests with you.

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.

These sound like the arguments that the meat industry has made for years for Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7.

I see this study as another reason why we need better food safety regulation, and the sooner the better.

Postscript: Bill Marler reports that he had 100 samples of chicken tested from Seattle markets:

IEH Labs found S. aurea [sic], or staph, in 42 percent of the samples overall and Campylobacter in 65 percent. The supermarket chicken was contaminated with other pathogens as well: 19 percent of the samples tested positive for Salmonella, one tested positive for Listeria, and 10 percent showed the presence of the methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA). In an unusual finding, one of the chicken samples tested positive for E. coli 0126, Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC) bacteria more likely to be a contaminant of beef than poultry. Organic Chicken proved to be slightly less contaminated than nonorganic with 7 of the 13 (54%) testing positive for harmful bacteria.

As I said….

  • john

    Just another of the many reasons to switch to a plant based diet. I guess not everyone will see it that way though. Doc Mud, what say you?

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  • Doc Mudd

    These surveys, however recently completed, do not reveal any new information. The situation in poultry has been recognized for decades. We do some intensive hand-wringing over it from time to time, but life goes on.

    The Pew survey is a warmed-over re-do of a survey completed in Europe a few years ago. Similar results, no new discoveries.

    Interesting that Pew paid TGen $290,000 to swab a couple hundred meat samples without doing any epidemiology to draw meaningful conclusions regarding source of the bacteria. Looks like they were merely after convenient findings as a backdrop to scary press releases. For over a quarter of a million dollars Pew purchased some pretty shoddy science so they must plan to make up for it in the anti-agriculture publicity they are organized to generate from it.

    Wish they’d pay me that kind of money to rehash an old microbiological survey and re-state the obvious. Heck, I’d do it for about half that price. I’d encounter an ethical problem leaping to some of the conclusions TGen did, however. So, Pew went to the right place to get done what they intended.

  • Scare stuff especially if you eat a lot of meat.

  • tBoy

    Doc Mudd’s comment is industry template #1 for trying to divert attention from a failed industry. One that that is cranking out failed products. Discredit & blame the messengers.

    10% MRSA resistance on food products – if I sold MRSA contaminated cowboy hats and shipped them thru the post office, UPS, or FedEx Homeland Security’s bio-terrorism people would have hauled me off on day 3. But somehow this contaminated food product is OK.

    Nice work Doc Mudd.

  • Linda Duffy

    Plants are not immune to contamination. Most of the bacteria related food recalls on the FDA site are from fruits and vegetables.

    The problem is factory farming, not the meat itself.

    I should also note that 6 years as a vegetarian left me pre-diabetic and with a nasty case of hypertension. I still eat my veggies, but my diet is meat and animal based now. I not longer have hypertension and I am no longer pre-diabetic.

  • tBoy

    Linda – if the same standards were applied to meats as they are for vegetables & fruit fully 50+% of the meat now on the shelves would be recalled. How would the numbers look if over 50% of the meat on the shelves was recalled?

    Using those bogus statistics props up a bogus argument.

  • Anthro

    Marion, do you have a view on the strength and validity of the Pew study?
    What I eat isn’t the issue. Millions of people eat supermarket meat and restaurant-prepared meat and it is in everyone’s interest to have it be as safe as possible. That said, why would anyone eat undercooked meat?

    Also, I don’t think it’s just the Pew study that warns of the danger of the overuse of antibiotics. The entire medical/science establishment is also concerned (and they aren’t just talking about over prescribing).

  • Sam

    Anthro – The issues isn’t the cooking, it’s the cross-contamination of other foods, utensils, and refrigerators. Consumers are bringing in food that they are told is “safe”, there is no warning on these foods that states “may contain potentially deadly Salmonella, Staph, or E. Coli. Handle with care in X manner to minimize risk of cross-contamination, and cook to X”.

    Some of that information is out in the cloud, but that is not easy for consumers to reference. It should be on the label so that the risk is clearly and consistently communicated to the consumer. That is the business’s job, to be responsible and accurately communicate the risks of their products.

    Once that is done, then it’s in the consumer’s court, but for some reason business is unwilling to be the leaders they claim to be and take the steps to label.

  • DennisP

    Sam – You write “but for some reason business is unwilling to…take the steps to label.” Ummmmm….could it be because they don’t want to lose customers??

  • Sam

    Dennis – Tongue in check…though I don’t think it would be as bad as they fear, people will still want to eat meat.

    Heck, I still eat sushi and poached eggs, I know the risk and the restaurants I eat at warn me that eating uncooked food can be dangerous on their menus. I have been warned, and I am making a decision to take the risk. Better that than them wrongly telling me that I shouldn’t be worried because then I’ll be surprised, angry, and betrayed when I get sick.

    If businesses are honest and up front, people will appreciate it. Bacteria are a fact of life, don’t tell people they’re not, help them mitigate the risk

  • Thank you so much for weighing in on this extremely under-exposed news. Jim Healthy of wrote a dynamic opinion piece on this very issue that was posted today here:

    The more we talk about it, the more room there is for change to occur. Thank you again for lending your powerful voice to this issue.

  • Linda Duffy

    tboy, meat is meant to be cooked. The bacteria on meat is no longer a problem when you cook it properly. Vegetables, however, are often eaten raw. Bacteria on the vegetables is sickening more people. Unless you plan on boiling all your lettuce, contamination from vegetables is a bigger problem as reflected in the recall stats.

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