Attention grabbing headlines in recent media reports have suggested that Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) exists in nearly half of U.S. meat.  The authors of a study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases recently suggested that “U.S. meat and poultry is widely contaminated.” Researchers collected and analyzed samples of beef, chicken, pork and turkey and reported that nearly half of the samples — 47 percent — were contaminated with S. aureus bacteria, and more than half of those bacteria — 52 percent — were resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics.

In turn, many of these stories have improperly questioned the safety of our meat supply.  The study, however, likely creates little cause for concern.

Setting aside the fact that S. aureus are easily destroyed when meat (or any other food products) are cooked properly, American Meat Institute (“AMI”) concluded, and we agree, that the research was also misleading for the following reasons:

  • The study’s small sample size was insufficient to reach the sweeping conclusions conveyed in a press release about the study. The study involved only 136 samples of meat and poultry from 80 brands in 26 retail grocery stores in five U.S. cities. In comparison, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture studies the prevalence of bacteria, their work involves thousands of samples collected over long periods of time to ensure accuracy.
  • Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show steady declines in foodborne illnesses linked to consumption of meat and poultry overall and indicate that human infections with S. aureus comprise less than one percent of total foodborne illnesses.
  • According to a new white paper authored by Ellin Doyle, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin’s Food Research Institute, S. aureus bacteria are found in half of all human nasal passages, and only two foodborne outbreaks of the antibiotic resistant strain of this bacteria (“MRSA”) have been identified and both were attributed to food handlers contaminating food – not to the food source itself.
  • The study criticizes U.S. production methods and suggests that they cause antibiotic resistant bacteria to develop, but Doyle’s white paper documents that similar incidence patterns can be observed in livestock in many countries with a variety of different production methods.

Industry has developed amazing processes and technologies to render American meat and poultry the safest in the world, and consumers can take simple steps to make it even safer. This study made headlines about bacteria being found in “nearly half” of our meat. The reality is, however, that consumers should treat all raw meat as if it contains bacteria. Raw meat must be stored and prepared separately from ready-to-eat foods. Restaurants and homes must have cutting boards designated solely for raw meat. Hands, utensils and any surfaces which come into contact with raw meat must be carefully washed. Finally, cooking raw meat to the proper temperatures will destroy bacteria.