Does MRSA Bacteria in Pigs Endanger Pork Chops?

mrsapigsIt may be time to stop bringing home the bacon.

The potentially deadly methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria most frequently infects and kills people in hospitals. A different strain can take down teens who frequent locker rooms. Now a strain of MRSA has been found in pigs and pork chops, and may be finding its way to bacon-loving humans.

The Consequences of Farmers’ Addiction to Antibiotics
MRSA is a type of staph infection that is resistant to most antibiotics. Its unpredictable effects can cause a mild infection or skin wounds that quickly turn deadly. Some strains cause pneumonia or blood infections that are suspected to cause heart inflammation. For reasons not yet clearly understood, some people carry the bacteria without being harmed, while in others it is a lethal killer. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 94,360 Americans were infected with MRSA in 2005, and 18,650 of them died. Of those deaths, 85 percent were caused by the hospital strain. It’s generally accepted that MRSA has become so deadly because of antibiotic resistance, which over time creates ever-deadlier strains of the bacteria.

MRSA was first identified in pig farms and then in grocery store pork in the Netherlands, then in Canada, and has now been identified on pig farms in Iowa and in meat in supermarkets in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and California. These are just the states where it’s been independently tested and the results have been made public—chances are good that it’s present in grocery store pork throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe. Furthermore, testing of people in pig farming towns in Iowa has shown a high rate of carriers. Again, most scientists believe that MRSA has gotten a foothold in pigs because of antibiotic resistance. Pigs raised in crowded conditions spend most of their lives on antibiotics, an ideal breeding ground for drug resistant strains of MRSA.

Open Sores and Whistle Blowing in Indiana
The New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning op-ed columnist and investigative reporter Nicholas Kristof recently wrote a column about Dr. Tom Anderson, a physician from a pig-farming area in Indiana who was treating a mini-epidemic of MRSA skin infections. Kristof was about to pay a visit to Indiana, because Anderson was ready to become a whistle-blower about pigs and MRSA infections, when Anderson suddenly dropped dead, at the age of 54, from a reported brain aneurysm or heart attack. There was no autopsy. A 54-year-old dropping dead of a heart attack and no autopsy? That right there is enough to start conspiracy theories flying. Fortunately we can count on Kristof to carry the torch.

Kristof says he’ll still give his kids BLTs, but will carefully wash his hands after handling raw pork. He points out that there’s no hard evidence of MRSA transmission from eating pork, implying that those in pig-farming areas are spreading their MRSA infections from direct contact with pigs. But if pigs have MRSA, and MRSA is being found in grocery store pork, personally, I’m going to “just say no” to bacon until the pig farmers get their collective act together. Although thoroughly cooking pork kills MRSA, there’s still the issue of handling raw pork, from the moment you put your hand on the package at the grocery store, to the time it lands in the frying pan. I don’t want to put on a hazmat suit to barbecue ribs.

If Americans Stop Eating Pork, Pig Farmers Will Pay Attention
It’s doubtful that federal, state or local governments will make any real moves against the routine use of antibiotics in pigs, which is made necessary by poor living conditions. Too much money is involved, and too much of it is handed around to politicians by lobbyists. The dangers of drug-resistant bacteria in livestock have been well known for decades, yet little has been done to reduce the use of antibiotics. However, if Americans stop eating pork, the industry will become inspired to act. MRSA has already shown up in dairy cows and possibly chickens, and it can only be a matter of time before it’s found in turkey, cattle and sheep. If the pork industry takes a nosedive, perhaps those other livestock farmers will sit up and take notice, and reduce their dependence on antibiotics.

Don't Blame It On the Pigs
mrsapigLeft to their own devices, pigs are very clean creatures. This is about dirty farmers, and their responsibility goes beyond what’s for dinner. It may be easier to get an MRSA infection from a live pig than from a ham, but once a strain enters the human population it has the potential to spread via human-to-human contact. Think six degrees of separation. The Iowa pig farmer’s MRSA infection today may be the Maryland pre-schooler’s infection tomorrow.

Once again, it’s up to the American public to act on a grass roots level to create change. Government will not do it for us.

References

Gastmeier P, Sohr D, Geffers C et al, “Mortality Risk Factors with Nosocomial Staphylococcus aureus Infections in Intensive Care Units: Results from the German Nosocomial Infection Surveillance System (KISS),” Infection, Volume 33, Number 2 / April, 2005.

Kristof, Nicholas, “Our Pigs, Our Food, Our Health,” New York Times, March 11, 2009
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/12/opinion/12kristof.html

Smith TC, Male MJ, Harper AL et al, “Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) Strain ST398 Is Present in Midwestern U.S. Swine and Swine Workers,” PLoS ONE 4(1): e4258. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004258, 2009.

Vedder, Tracy “Tests find drug-resistant bacteria in store-bought pork,” KOMONews.com, Nov 21, 2008.
http://www.komonews.com/news/33621204.html

More Livestock Infected with MRSA, AmericanDairyMen.com, Feb 20, 2009.
http://www.americandairymen.com/articles/more-livestock-infected-mrsa