Tests find potentially deadly bacteria in pork

Tests find potentially deadly bacteria in pork »Play Video
SEATTLE -- A ground-breaking investigation by has found toxic, life-threatening Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) bacteria in some pork you might buy at grocery stores.

This drug-resistant bacteria is already responsible for more deaths in this country than AIDS. What makes MRSA so potentially dangerous is the bacteria can make you sick just by touching it.

In spite of the risk, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has resisted testing store-bought pork for the aggressive bacteria. So, in partnership with our sister stations across the region, we decided to test it ourselves.

No matter how you prepare it, the popular wisdom holds that as long as you cook meat thoroughly it won't make you sick. But popular wisdom doesn't take MRSA into account.

"MRSA is a very different kind of bacteria," said Dr. Rebecca Goldburg, a biologist with Keep Antibiotics Working.

Last winter, the antibiotic resistant type of staph killed Chris Feden, a healthy 20 year old, when he contracted MRSA-related pneumonia.

"We just thought that we could conquer this with modern medicine," said Feden's father, David.

Three years ago, Puyallup, Wash., resident Brian Boutte scraped his hip -- a simple, small abrasion. His doctor prescribed antibiotics, but the flesh-eating disease Boutte contracted didn't respond.

"I was running out of time, I was on my last hour -- I was dying," he said, "I was literally dying."

Twenty surgeries later, doctors saved Boutte's life, but he lost his leg.

Neither Boutte nor Chris Feden's parents know how they were infected. They're just living with the results.

"I didn't know how serious it would be," Boutte said.

While we can't say these injuries were caused by contact with pork, our investigation has discovered the bacteria in ground pork sold in area grocery stores.

"It all starts with just one bacteria which you cannot see with your naked eyes," said Dr. Mansour Samadpour, an expert bacterial microbiologist with IEH Laboratories.

A few months ago a University of Iowa study found a virulent strain of MRSA in pigs. But, in spite of that information, no one from the USDA is testing.

"As far as I'm concerned," said Goldburg, "USDA and FDA are kind of asleep at the wheel on this one."

So the Problem Solvers, along with our network of stations in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and California did our own testing. At stores around the region, we purchased 97 packages, divided between ground pork and pork cutlets. We sent all the samples to IEH Laboratories, a USDA-certified lab in Seattle.

The scientists followed standard testing protocols and found MRSA in three different samples; all were ground pork. The positive samples were from purchases made in Oregon, California and Idaho -- three of the four states where we tested.

"The interesting situation here," said Samadpour, "is that now we have something that you would worry about in terms of wound infections in foods."

Like most other bacteria, MRSA will die if it's thoroughly cooked. But unlike E. coli or salmonella, MRSA causes skin infections, so just touching raw pork that has the bacteria could be a problem, according to both Samadpour and Goldburg.

"So that raises the possibility," says Goldburg, "that simply handling meat could potentially give you a very nasty infection."

Canada and several European countries already test pork in grocery stores for MRSA. We contacted the USDA and were told they have no plans for any testing.

"It really disturbs me," said Boutte. "We have enough things out there that we can catch, we don't need any help from other sources, and if the government is not going to be able to step up and help us out - what's the point?"

The National Pork Board just began testing pork in retail markets. Their study won't be finished for another six months, but their preliminary results are similar to ours: about a 3 percent positive rate for MRSA. The Pork Board said MRSA is a priority, but they don't know if it's a risk to you.

"Government should not ignore this information," said Goldburg. "I hope it'll be a bit of a wake-up call."

Boutte hopes the wake-up call makes a difference. "I would like them to think about the people that are possibly going to catch this disease and if they are able to prevent those people from catching it then they've saved one more life."

We also contacted both the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA says they have started a small pilot study of raw meat in Washington, D.C., but don't have any results yet and don't know when the study will be finished.

Everyone we've spoken with stresses that while this information is important, it shouldn't cause anyone to panic or not want to buy pork. Just make sure you use safe food-handling practices with one additional precaution: try not to handle raw pork if you have cuts or abrasions on your hands.