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Federal Government Forms a Work Group on MRSA in Meat

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Last week, I wrote a column about the disturbingly high rate of MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or drug-resistant staff bacteria) found in samples of fresh pork, beef and chicken purchased in North American supermarkets.

More than 5 percent of the pork sold in supermarkets in Baton Rouge and roughly one-in-seven pork chops sold in Canada were found to be harboring the bacteria, which now kills more Americans each year than AIDS.

In that piece, I wrote that some scientists believed that the MRSA contamination happened at meat processing plants, and did not come from infected animals -- including those raised in large, crowded factory farms that use antibiotics in feed to promote animal growth and prevent disease.

But wherever the MRSA was coming from, I wanted to know why the infected meat was not being recalled, especially since 550 million eggs were called back last month due to salmonella contamination.

It turned out that nobody in the government -- not the FDA, not the USDA, not the Consumer Product Safety Commission -- was even testing for MRSA in meat, let alone mandating or even suggesting any recalls.

This seemed like a bad idea to me, and I said so.

Some commenters accused me of being alarmist, and claimed that MRSA cannot be transmitted by eating contaminated food. (They ignored the fact that bringing raw meat with MRSA into your home can infect anyone who handles it, especially if they have cuts or sores, touch their nose to spread the germs, or are immune challenged).

Today, I am pleased to write that the USDA shares my concerns.

I was interviewed for a story that ran today on AOL's "Consumer Ally" page, in which reporter Gergana Koleva managed to get this rather surprising but very welcome statement from the agency's Food Safety Inspection Service:

"The Food Safety Inspection Service is aware of and takes seriously the concerns related to MRSA and other emerging food safety threats. [We] have formed a work group to develop a risk profile for MRSA that will be used to guide potential future actions related to this matter," said a spokesman for the FSIS, the public health unit of the USDA, in an email to Consumer Ally.

That is excellent news. Let's hope that any "potential future actions" include greatly reducing the chance of bringing this potentially killer, drug-resistant bug into your home.

Is that alarmist? Perhaps. But read just one of the other comments from my last piece, one from the relative of a MRSA victim, and you might feel a slight sense of alarm yourself.

My three-year-old nephew spent three weeks in intensive care battling a (swine-associated) MRSA ST-398 infection, which literally ate him alive. The infection began on his upper leg/groin area; within in a week he required a feeding tube and ran fevers spiking at 108 degrees. When antibiotics don't work, the only way to bring the fever down is by ice-packing and freezing showers. He was hallucinating and was sedated for much of the time. He dropped to 21 pounds and shook violently even in his sleep. He survived by the grace of God, and no human being should ever have to watch a child (or anyone) endure this.

I don't think that my blog had anything to do with the formation of the new USDA work group on MRSA, but I do think the government is paying more attention to the safety of our food supply.

And that is something that we should all support.

David Kirby is author of "Animal Factory - The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment" (St. Martin's Press)

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