A British newspaper has reported that tests on pork products sold at two major UK supermarket chains found three samples contaminated with a livestock strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.
According to The Guardian newspaper, the test results raise concerns that the country “is on the brink of another food scandal” similar to recent revelations of Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli on chicken sold at retail.
The most recent tests were done on minced samples of 97 U.K.-produced pork products sold at Asda Stores Ltd., a subsidiary of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and Sainsbury’s. They are two of the largest supermarket chains in Britain.
The report, a joint effort between the newspaper and the non-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism, noted that a loophole in British import rules allows live pigs from Denmark and other countries to enter the U.K. although they may be infected with MRSA CC398, the livestock strain of the potentially deadly superbug.
Public health officials are concerned about superbugs because even the strongest antibiotics available might not cure some people who become infected by MRSA, which can be contracted from eating infected meat or through contact with infected animals.
And while MRSA can be destroyed by thorough cooking, it can be passed on to others through inadequate hygiene practices.
The Guardian reported that without sufficient action, MRSA CC38 could spread throughout the U.K. as it has in Denmark. It may have infected as many as 12,000 people in that country and has been found on two-thirds of Danish pig farms, according to the newspaper report.
“Thousands of people have contracted the livestock-associated strain of MRSA in Denmark and six have died from it in the last five years,” the Bureau of Investigative Journalism stated.
British pig farms are not regularly screened for MRSA CC398 because the government believes that it poses a relatively low risk to human health. The Guardian noted that two confirmed cases have been reported on U.K pig farms, one in eastern England and one in Northern Ireland.
“If we don’t have tight infection control and we don’t try to control the movement of live animals, infection can spread. The British are up in arms about the movement of people, but the EU also has a large movement of animals. We need biosecurity, we need to tighten up this livestock movement. You may get cheap meat, but in the long term it’s going to add to your public health problems,” said Tim Lang, a professor at the Centre for Food Policy at London’s City University.
In response to the report, Asda released this statement:
“Our customers can be assured that we are working closely with industry groups and farmers to make sure that antibiotics are used responsibly in farm animals. We are doing all we can to promote good animal health and welfare conditions without relying on antibiotics.”
A Sainsbury’s spokeswoman told The Guardian that the company was working with farmers to make sure they are taking advice from leading industry experts about antibiotic use.
“MRSA CC398 is uncommon in British pork and, through basic kitchen hygiene and thoroughly cooking meat, any food safety issue is removed,” she said.
The Guardian had 100 samples of retail pork products tested last year sourced from both foreign and local farms and found nine with MRSA CC398. Eight of those were from Denmark and one was from Ireland, the newspaper reported. It was the first time the superbug had been found in food products sold in British supermarkets.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)