Pork sausages and pork mince purchased in the UK were found to be contaminated with a strain of the superbug methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA CC398) in a study carried out by the Alliance to Save Antibiotics, a campaign group which includes the Soil Association, The Guardian reported today (June 18).
However, the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) pointed to government and Food Standards Agency (FSA) advice which claimed the risks of contracting MRSA through the food chain were very low.
No incidents from eating meat
“It is important to state there is no record of livestock-associated (LA)-MRSA being contracted by humans from eating meat,” said the meat processing industry in a joint statement.
“In the past, MRSA infection has primarily been associated with hospitals. More recently, a different type of MRSA has emerged, livestock-associated (LA)-MRSA, which has been reported in pigs, poultry and cattle in many countries.
“(LA)-MRSA causes little to no disease in livestock animals and, to date, only two cases of (LA)-MRSA have been recorded in pigs in the UK. We are aware it is more prevalent in a number of countries in the EU and across the globe.
“This is not an unexpected finding bearing in mind the movement of livestock and goods across Europe. Livestock keepers are advised to observe good husbandry, hygiene and biosecurity practices, including adherence to principles of responsible antibiotic use.”
Both the FSA and Public Health England also advise that if meat is handled and prepared properly, the risk to people is extremely low and there are no known cases of people contracting MRSA from eating meat.
“Any risk of contracting MRSA through meat from animals with these bacteria is very low when usual good hygiene and thorough cooking practices are observed,” said the FSA. “There are no known cases of people contracting MRSA from eating meat in the UK.”
Powerful antibiotics on farms
However, concerns have been raised in the past about the dangers of overusing powerful antibiotics on factory farms, particularly in the US where they are used as growth promoters.
Speaking at Food Manufacture Group’s food safety conference last year, Sarah O’Brien, professor of infection epidemiology and zoonoses at the University of Liverpool and chair of the FSA’s Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food, claimed antimicrobial resistance posed one of the top challenges facing the food supply chain today.
The threat for the UK was lent new urgency by transatlantic trade talks, said O’Brien, which could result in food products produced from US industrial scale farming, which relies on antimicrobial products, becoming available in Europe.
“That might allow products from North America to appear on our tables more often,” said O’Brien. “As we all know, standards apply [in the US] that are different from those in Europe.”
She added: “People are genuinely talking about treatment for people and animals essentially running out in 10 to 20 years, so it is a big deal. One of the big debates is how much antimicrobial resistance is potentially transmitted through the food chain as well as the use of antibiotics in human and veterinary medicine.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the National Pig Association recommend that anyone importing pigs to Britain should have them screened for infection. The government is currently reviewing options for increased surveillance of the superbug (LA)-MRSA CC398. Surveillance measures are being considered by the DEFRA Antimicrobial Resistance Co-ordination group (DARC) and its LA-MRSA surveillance forum, which is a subgroup of DARC.
But not everyone in the sector is so sanguine about the minimal risk presented by the latest survey findings.
‘Greater risk than horsemeat crisis’
“This latest scare poses a much greater risk to public health than the horsemeat crisis,” said Shaun Bossons, executive vice president at transparency specialist Trace One.
“While horsemeat is essentially harmless, we are well aware of the dangers MRSA presents. Food scares such as this are, to some degree, inevitable – the sheer scale of the modern supply chain, coupled with the unpredictability of infection and human scruples and behaviour, means that that there is always an opportunity for superbugs to enter the food chain.”
Bossons added: “Where retailers show their true colours is in their response. While they cannot be blamed for the initial contamination, they can ensure that potentially dangerous products are removed from shelves to prevent harm to customers, and track the infected ingredients through their supply chain to identify and isolate those suppliers at fault.”