WASHINGTON – A new Pew Commission-funded study misleads consumers about the safety of US meat and poultry, the American Meat Institute Foundation said on April 15. Authors of the new study, which involved a small number of samples from retail stores, claim their findings suggest a significant public health risk exists becauseStaphylococcusaureus was found on meat and poultry products.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, show steady declines in foodborne illnesses linked to consumption of meat and poultry overall and indicate that human infections withStaphylococcusaureus (Staph) comprise less than 1 percent of total foodborne illnesses, AMIF responded.

The study involved 136 samples of meat and poultry from 80 brands in 26 retail grocery stores in five US cities. AMIF claims the sample size is insufficient to reach the sweeping conclusions conveyed about the study. When the US Dept. of Agriculture studies the prevalence of bacteria, its work involves thousands of samples collected over long periods of time to ensure accuracy.

Although the study claims that much of the bacteria found were antibiotic resistant, it does note they are not heat resistant. These bacteria are destroyed through normal cooking procedures, which may account for the small percentage of foodborne illnesses linked to these bacteria. It is important to follow federal safe handling recommendations regarding any raw agricultural product, which are included on every meat and poultry package. Consumers are urged to wash their hands and surfaces when handling raw meat and poultry and to separate raw from cooked foods to ensure that food is safe when served.

These bacteria are found in half of all human nasal passages, according to a new white paper authored by Ellen Doyle, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin’s Food Research Institute – this fact points to the pervasiveness of this bacteria among people, according to AMIF. The white paper also noted that 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. S. aureus is also carried by household pets and can be transmitted in healthcare settings.

The bacteria occurs at what they characterized as a “low rate”, which the researchers said was “likely due to human contamination,” a 2009 US analysis by Louisiana State University researchers concluded.

Although the authors of the Pew-funded paper criticize US production methods and suggest they cause antibiotic-resistant bacteria to develop, Doyle’s paper documents similar incidence patterns can be observed in livestock in many countries with a variety of different production methods.

“Despite the claims of this small study, consumers can feel confident that meat and poultry is safe,” said James Hodges, AMIF president. “Federal data show that S. aureus infections in people that are caused by food are uncommon. CDC data also show that foodborne illnesses as a whole are declining due to our growing scientific knowledge about how to target and destroy bacteria on meat and poultry.”