U.S. pigs and farmers carry MRSA but federal food safety agencies are
doing little to see if the pork is safe
It's official now. Many of the pigs and the farmers who raise them in Iowa
and Illinois have MRSA.
It was just about six months ago that I reported on preliminary research
done by Dr. Tara Smith, a significantly dedicated epidemiologist who found
that pigs at several different Midwest farms had MRSA, as did many of the
farmers raising them.
The reaction to her study and my earlier blog item – which broke the news -
was enormous. She was swamped with calls and I got hundreds of email from
here and abroad. Many came from public health workers – mostly government –
praising the efforts of her' and her team at the University of Iowa's Center
for Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Many of those health professionals, especially several connected with FDA,
USDA and CDC, were passionate in their anger that the government was not
taking the presence of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in our
food supply anywhere near seriously enough.
Some members of Congress expressed outrage and demanded that the federal
health agencies determine whether Smith's findings in pigs also meant that
pork in our grocery and butcher shop coolers also carried the sometimes
So today, Smith's final study was published on PLoS ONE, an online journal
for peer-reviewed scientific and medical research.
It said that Smith and her five students tested 446 pigs and 29 workers from
pig farms in Iowa and Illinois and found MRSA in 45 percent of the animals
and in 45 percent of the humans caring for them.
So I called some disease detectives and food safety specialists in agencies
responsible for ensuring that our food supply is safe. You could almost hear
them cringe over the phone. And, no, to the best of their knowledge, neither
the FDA, USDA nor CDC had launched systematic testing of the U.S. meat
supply for MRSA. One physician said that a study was being done on the MRSA
strain (ST398) that Smith had found on the pigs but added, "I don't think it
has anything to do with meat."
They did mention that some testing – but far from enough - was being done by
the academic community and gave me the names of researchers at Louisiana
State University and the University of Minnesota. I'll try to chase them
down over the weekend.
Next I called staff members of some of the same congressional committees
that were so upset and promised action last June when Smith's initial
results were released. Two senior people said almost the identical thing
"We'll get to it when we get the economy under control." A lawyer on the
third committee said she was embarrassed that nothing had happen, but would
"contact Dr. Smith soon."
OK. We'll see.
Smith said her group has a number of ongoing projects examining MRSA in food
and in rural communities, including examining the presence of MRSA on both
conventional and organic farms.
The feds have a large role to play, she says.
"The studies should be expanded nationwide to examine hundreds of farms in
Iowa and other swine-farming states and see how common MRSA is on a national
But she agrees with many others that a national survey of meat products
should be conducted and other animals like beef, poultry, lamb and goat
should also be checked out for MRSA.
Smith added that her study just reinforces the importance of vigilance in
food handling and cooking procedures.
"It's likely that cooking will kill any MRSA present on the surface of
meats, but anyone handling raw meats should be careful about
cross-contamination of cooking areas or other food products, and should make
sure hands are washed before touching one's face, nose, lips, etc.," the