Once again, bad science is causing a food-safety scare that is confusing consumers and potentially needlessly damaging the entire meat industry.

In a press release late last week, the Translational Genomics Research Institute says a study shows that much of meat and poultry sold in supermarkets is contaminated with drug-resistant Staphylococcus bacteria. A paper in the April 15 Clinical Infectious Diseases journal says researchers bought beef, chicken, pork, and turkey in five U.S. cities and found that nearly half of the meat sampled —- 47 percent —- contained drug-resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus.

Is there any surprise to the livestock and meat science world that the study was supported through a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts as part of The Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming? The Pew Charitable Trust believes that antibiotic use in food production threatens human health (see its website www.saveantibiotics.org).

In a press release, the American Meat Institute (AMI) says despite what this study indicated,  federal data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show steady declines in foodborne illnesses linked to consumption of meat and poultry overall and indicate that human infections with Staphylococcus aureus comprise less than one percent of total foodborne illnesses. Additionally, CDC has stated the foodborne routes are not the main way to get infected with Staph.

AMI’s release says it is notable that the study involved only 136 samples of meat and poultry from 80 brands in 26 retail grocery stores in five U.S. cities. This small sample is insufficient to reach the sweeping conclusions conveyed in a press release about the study. By contrast, when the USDA studies the prevalence of bacteria, their work involves thousands of samples collected over long periods of time to ensure accuracy. 

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Bill McDonald says, “U.S. cattlemen’s top priority is to produce the safest, highest quality beef in the world. Cattlemen and women use multiple technologies to ensure the safety of their cattle and therefore the beef products. Calling into question the safety of U.S. beef without conclusive scientific evidence is careless and misleads consumers. Pew Charitable Trusts, an agenda-driven organization on this issue, funded this study, which concludes that its extremely small sample size was ‘insufficient to accurately estimate prevalence rates’ and that ‘public health relevance of this finding is unclear.’ The study’s authors clearly call into question the validity of their own study. The bottom-line is U.S. beef is safe and is part of a healthy, well-balanced diet.” 

Noted antimicrobial and food-animal pathogen expert Scott Hurd, of Iowa State University, says the results of this study are “inconsequential.”

“As stated by the authors in the paper, the sample size is too small to infer a national prevalence estimate,” Hurd explains. “The authors also stated that these strains were rarely found in humans — evidence that reinforces the point that people don’t get these strains from animals or meat.”

Hurd formerly served as deputy undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.