MRSA is so common in the United States that it accounts for more than half of all soft-tissue and skin infections in ERs. The CDC estimates that invasive MRSA infections (those that entered the bloodstream) number more than 94,000 a year. Even more troubling, if you add up the other types of illnesses MRSA can cause, including urinary tract infections, pneumonia, and inpatient skin infections, the total could be 8 to 11 times more than that, reports a study by epidemiologist William Jarvis, MD, of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. The numbers are high and rising: From 1996 to 2005, MRSA-related hospitalizations increased nearly tenfold.
In recent years, MRSA has been found in retail cuts of chicken, pork, beef and other meats—a particularly worrisome trend since MRSA can be contracted simply by handling infected cuts of meat.
Just how prevalent is MRSA-infected meat? It's hard to say because the government still has not instituted a comprehensive MRSA inspection process, but independent research conducted by Tara Smith, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Iowa, suggests that MRSA-infected animals may be widespread indeed. Smith studied two large Midwestern hog farms and found ST398, the virulent strain of MRSA, in 45 percent of farmers and 49 percent of hogs.
The most obvious way to limit your risk of contracting MRSA is this: Don't handle or consume meat. Instead, seek out nonmeat protein sources such as beans, lentils, tofu, soymilk, and in small quantities, nuts and seeds.
Unfortunately, MRSA can be passed from person to person. If you work out in a public gym, disinfect workout equipment before you use it. Wash hands thoroughly after shaking hands with others (especially after shaking hands with those those who eat and handle meat).
Where do antibiotic-resistant supergerms like MRSA come from? All evidence points to factory farms. Factory farms are concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) where animals are raised intensively and permanently confined in warehouses and sheds. Ninety-seven percent of all poultry are raised in sheds containing over 100,000 birds, and hog facilities routinely house thousands of hogs in the same building. The animals either stand in their own waste for the duration of the animal-rearing cycle, or the waste drops down into manure pits below the facility. These unsanitary conditions, coupled with the stress of confinement, compromise the animals' immune systems. To prevent large-scale losses due to disease and also to promote rapid growth, the animals are routinely fed low levels of antibiotics and growth hormones. Nearly 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are fed to farm animals. The nearly constant exposure to low levels of antibiotics creates a perfect breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant bacteria to emerge. We've seen this with E. coli 0157:H7 and campylobacter. MRSA almost certainly owes its widespread existence to the unsafe factory-farming practice of adding antibiotics to animal feed.
You can read more about MRSA risk and about how the routine use of antibiotics in factory farms contributes to such diseases in Stephanie Woodard's column in Prevention available here.
The Bottom Line: The government cares more about protecting agribusiness profits than it does about protecting the health of consumers. Do your part to help prevent more outbreaks of new antibiotic-resistant supergerms. Write to your state and federal representatives and urge them to pass legislation banning the routine, non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on factory farms. Meanwhile, protect yourself and your family from such germs by refusing to purchase or consume any meat produced on factory farms. Better yet, go vegetarian and stop having to worry about poisoning yourself or a loved one.