Superbugs in Meat: Should You Be Worried?

Several recent studies have identified methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a potentially deadly bacteria, in the U.S. meat supply.

One study, to be published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases next month, found 2 percent of raw meat samples tested in grocery stores in Detroit were contaminated with the bug. A study published last month looking at the meat supply in five large U.S. cities had a similar result.

Is this something to worry about?

MRSA is caused by a strain of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria that has become resistant to the antibiotics normally used to treat it, including methicillin. It is often referred to as a superbug . The disease can cause painful skin infections. In some cases, MRSA can infect other parts of the body and cause life-threatening conditions, including sepsis. In 2005, there were about 11,400 deaths related to Staphylococcus aureus infection, of which about 6,600 were MRSA-related according to a 2007 study published in Emerging Infectious Diseases.

In healthy individuals, infection with MRSA is not a big concern, said Yifan Zhang, a food science professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who led the recent study examining meat in Detroit. A healthy person can have MRSA on the skin and show no symptoms. However, the disease can be a serious problem in people with weakened immune systems. MRSA infections most commonly occur and spread in hospitals, according to the Mayo Clinic.

To avoid infection with potentially contaminated meat, people should wash their hands after handling raw meat and cover cuts or open wounds on their hands by wearing gloves, Zhang said. Cooking meat thoroughly should kill the bacteria, she said.

Healthy people can be reservoirs for MRSA bacteria, Zhang said. And while the bug stays in the body, it may transfer its antibiotic resistance to other microbes, further contributing to the spread of drug-resistant bacteria, she said.

Last month's study found a much larger portion of the U.S. meat supply is contaminated with drug-resistant staph bacteria.Though not specifically MRSA, study researcher Dr. Lance Price, of the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix, points out staph infections can be deadly as well.

Right now it's unclear whether people can become infected with staph through the meat supply, a question future research needs to address, Price said. Hundreds of thousands of people in the United States are infected with staph each year, he said.

The crowding of animals on industrial farms may fuel the spread of staph bacteria, Price said. And the use of antibiotics to prevent infection in these animals may generate superbugs, he said.

"It's clear the simplest thing to reduce drug resistance is to stop using the drugs unnecessarily stop using antibiotics to prevent diseases that may be occurring because of the way we're raising [the animals]," Price said.

Pass it on: MRSA has been identified in the U.S. meat supply. The health impact of this finding is not yet clear, though the disease should not be a threat to otherwise healthy individuals if they take the proper precautions to protect themselves, researchers say.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.