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meats point to superbug C. diff in food
Study finds gut germ in 40 percent of grocery meats; CDC says not to worry
JoNel Aleccia Health writer
potentially deadly intestinal germ increasingly found in hospitals is also
showing up in a more unsavory setting: grocery store meats.
than 40 percent of packaged meats sampled from three
30 percent of the contaminated samples of ground beef, pork and turkey and
ready-to-eat meats like summer sausage were identical or closely related to a
super-toxic strain of C. diff blamed for growing rates of illness and death in
the U.S . — raising the possibility that the bacterial infections may be
transmitted through food.
data suggest that domestic animals, by way of retail meats, may be a source of
C. difficile for human infection,” said J. Glenn Songer, a professor of
veterinary science at the
specialists from the CDC and scientists who study C. diff said the connection
between the presence of C. diff bacteria and infection has not been established
and that there’s not enough evidence about food transmission to warrant public
are no documented cases of people getting Clostridium difficile infection from
eating food that contains C. difficile,” said Dr. L. Clifford McDonald, chief
of prevention and response for a division of the CDC. “However, because C.
difficile has been found in some retail meats, that possibility does exist.”
samples included brands sold in grocery stores across the nation. Contamination
ranged from 41 percent of pork products and 44 percent of turkey products to 50
percent of ground beef samples and more than 62 percent of samples of
braunschweiger, a type of liverwurst.
three-quarters of the C. diff spores were toxinotype V, a type linked to illness
in pigs and calves and, increasingly, in humans, Songer noted.
percent of infections occur in hospitals
C. diff has long been a common, usually benign bug associated with simple, easily treated diarrhea in older patients in hospitals and nursing homes. About 3 percent of healthy adults harbor the bacteria with no problem. But overuse of antibiotics has allowed the germ to develop resistance in recent years, doctors said, creating the toxic new type that stumps traditional treatment.
80 percent of C. difficile infections now occur in hospital or health care
settings — and the number of infections is rising. About 13 in every 1,000
hospital patients is infected or colonized with the bacteria, a rate between 6.5
and 20 times higher than previously estimated , according to figures released
last week by the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and
Epidemiology, or APIC.
worrisome has been a new, more virulent strain, called NAP1, which produces
about 20 times the toxins of ordinary strains. It can cause severe, repeated
diarrhea that resists all but the most powerful drugs. In worst cases, C. diff
infection can destroy the colon and lead to blood poisoning and death.
not clear, however, where the remaining infections — those that occur outside
health settings, in the community — originate. Recent victims have included a
10-year-old girl with no history of antibiotic use who became very ill but
recovered and a 31-year-old woman pregnant with twins who spontaneously aborted
her babies and then died after becoming infected, according to a 2005 review by
these community-associated sources, there has to be a source outside the
hospitals,” Songer said. “It may well be that retail meats are a source or
the main source.”
diff is a tricky bug, hard to kill with anything but bleach in the hospital and
able to survive most cooking techniques in the kitchen. And, unlike scary
infections like E. coli 0157:H7, which has transmitted illness through foods
from ground beef to fresh spinach, C. diff can't be traced quickly to its
difficile, you can eat a nice, thick braunschweiger sandwich today, then two
weeks from now you get strep throat, take antibiotics and develop difficile-related
disease," Songer explained. "You're weeks separated from the
detected C. diff in every type of meat he tested, including uncooked ground
beef, pork and turkey; pork sausage and chorizo; and ready-to-eat products
including beef summer sausage and pork braunschweiger, a spreadable liver
sausage luncheon meat.
collected 88 samples of retail packaged meats bought from large chain stores
of the samples, or nearly 42 percent, showed evidence of C. diff, including
about 40 percent of the cooked products and nearly 48 percent of the
could be nationwide
All of the samples collected were national brands available in grocery stores across the country, except the pork chorizo, which was locally made. Songer declined to identify the specific brands, saying that it would unfairly target a single producer when the problem is likely endemic to all.
perspective on this is not to blow the whistle on the meat production or meat
processing agencies but to point out that we may have a problem and if we do we
should work together to solve it,” he said.
At least one meat industry official said Songer’s findings served as a
warning to producers, but that the research hasn’t been replicated. Liz
Wagstrom, assistant vice president of science and technology for the National
Pork Board, said she’s awaiting confirmation from the CDC and other sources.
feel very confident in the safety of our product,” she said. “If there is
any animal-to-human transmission, it is a very small part of the picture.”
“Bo” Reagan, chairman of the Beef Industry Food Safety Council, declined to
discuss specific strategies for addressing C. diff. Instead, in an e-mail to
msnbc.com, he said beef producers have spent $27 million on research to identify
new food safety technologies and processes.
efforts have resulted in new safeguards throughout the beef production chain and
we continue to work with our partners in beef production to find ways to ensure
beef is safe,” Reagan wrote in an e-mail.
Songer’s study follows a 2007 report in the CDC journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, which showed Canadian researchers detected C. diff in 12 — or 20 percent — of 60 retail meat samples collected in 2005.
report, however, definitively answers questions about C. diff in the food
supply, said the study's lead researcher J. Scott Weese, an associate professor
of pathobiology at the
it’s there,” he said. “But we need to find out how much is there.”
meats like those Songer studied may be more likely to show contamination because
they combine sources of meat and because they require more handling than, for
instance, a pork chop from a single pig, Weese said.
addition, scientists don’t know when C. diff exposure sparks infection in
people — or how much of a dose is necessary to cause infection, said Dr. Dale
N. Gerding, a national expert in C. diff epidemiology and a professor with the
Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University in Chicago.
a real susceptible source, it only takes a few spores,” he said.
might be in water, soil — even vegetables
But Gerding also noted that C. diff has been found in many places other than hospitals and meat counters, including water sources and soil.
little comfort to Mary Woodard, 51, of
is scared the infection will return, or that it will strike one of her other
grandchildren. Word that C. diff has been detected in meat made Woodard think
twice, despite CDC assurances to the contrary.
cut back, probably, on my meat eating," she said. "After seeing her
with the bad cramping, I don't want to see her like that again."
consumers worried about C. diff infection should pay closest attention to
hospitals and health care settings, Gerding said. Lax hand hygiene, improperly
cleaned hospital rooms and overuse of antibiotics are far more likely to
transmit C. diff than food products.
C. diff spores can be hard to kill, even Songer said most healthy consumers
don’t need to change their diets because of the bug.
bring it right down to personal terms, I haven’t changed my eating habits one
bit,” said Songer, who admits he’s a lifelong braunschweiger fan. “I’ve
got about 40 pounds in my freezer that I’m eating.”
research will clarify the link between C. diff detection in food animals and
infection in humans, Gerding said.
connection between the animal, the food and the disease has not been made,” he
said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.”