Researchers testing meat and poultry taken from grocery stores have found drug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the same bacteria that's been tough to fight in hospitals.

The Arizona-based Translational Genomics Research Institute analyzed 136 samples of beef, chicken, pork and turkey from 80 brands sold at 26 stores in five U.S. cities, none in New York.

The study released Friday found 47 percent of the samples were contaminated with the staph germ, with 52 percent of the bacteria resistant to multiple types of antibiotics.

The analysis has potential implications for all parts of the country, according to the report, because researchers tested brands marketed nationwide.

"For the first time, we know how much of our meat and poultry is contaminated with antibiotic-resistant staph, and it is substantial," Lance Price, the study's lead author, said in a statement.

The American Meat Institute lashed out against the research, saying the study misleads consumers. The institute called the U.S. meat and poultry industry "among the safest in the world."

With safe food-handling in the home and proper cooking, the bacteria isn't likely to make people ill, said Dr. Pascal Imperato, dean of the School of Public Health at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn.

Still, the findings point to a global trend, Imperato said.

"Antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus has been found in animal meats and poultry in several countries over the past few years," said Imperato, a Long Island resident and expert on infectious diseases.

The bacteria can live harmlessly on the skin and in nasal passages, but drug-resistant strains, including methicillin-resistant S. aureus -- MRSA -- are a different story because they can lead to infections that are difficult to fight.

The new study blames the contamination on the overuse of antibiotics in densely packed industrial farms where food animals are penned beak to beak or jowl to jowl, facilitating the spread of drug-resistant bacterial strains.

Price said the pervasiveness of the bacteria found in supermarket meat suggests it likely came from the animals themselves. He said the findings warrant further investigation into how antibiotics are used in food-animal production.

Many cases of meat and poultry contamination detected recently in Western countries have involved MRSA, said Imperato, who holds the U.S. State Department's Meritorious Honor Award and Medal for his work combating infectious diseases.

In 2003, he said, Dutch researchers were the first to discover MRSA in pigs raised for pork products, paving the way to similar findings in other countries.

"The actual prevalence of MRSA in animal meats is not yet fully understood, nor is its relationship to human illness," Imperato said.

Avoiding foodborne illness

Most cases can be prevented through proper cooking or processing of food. Here are some tips:

  • Refrigerate foods promptly. If prepared food stands at room temperature for more than two hours, it may not be safe to eat.
  • Set your refrigerator at 40°F or lower and your freezer at 0°F.
  • Cook food to the right internal temperature: 145°F for roasts, steaks, and chops of beef, veal and lamb; 160°F for pork, and ground veal, lamb and beef; 165°F for poultry.
  • Prevent cross-contamination. Bacteria can spread from one food product to another throughout the kitchen and can get onto cutting boards, knives, sponges and countertops.
  • Handle food properly. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with warm, soapy water before and after handling raw meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, produce, or eggs.
  • Don't defrost food on the kitchen counter. Use the refrigerator, cold running water, or the microwave.
  • Never let food marinate at room temperature. Stick it in the fridge.
  • SOURCE: U.S. Department of Agriculture

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