If the study released yesterday had found that half of all the bottled water on store shelves was contaminated with infectious bacteria, America’s streets today would look like Egypt’s Tahrir Square just before Mubarak fled. And if the industry had responded by saying, “Hey, it’s perfectly safe if you boil it, what’s the problem?” make that Egypt after the Six-Day War. Yet what the study found was in two respects much worse than that, and it has thus far produced mostly yawns of protest.
The study, published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, tested 136 packages of 80 brands of meat and poultry bought from 26 grocery stores in five widely separated US cities. Nearly half of the samples contained the infectious bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. God knows what else was in the meat, the researchers were looking for this particular bug.
(Here’s a quick litmus test of the credibility of your favorite source of news: if it does not report the story at all, it is an industrial news source and not to be trusted; if it tells you that half the meat in the United States is contaminated, do not believe anything it has to say about anything in the future. The study did not say that, and in fact made a point of saying that it did not say that, because the small size of the sample would not permit such a conclusion.)
Still, it’s a scary finding. A staph infection of the skin can cause painful boils; if it gets under the skin, cellulitis; if it reaches the blood, sepsis, leading to fever and low blood pressure; and in the heart or lungs, possible death. And the findings of this report are much worse than the imaginary bottled-water scenario above, for two reasons.
First, in half of the contaminated samples, the staph bacteria were resistant to at least three antibiotics, and some were resistant to more than six. That means that if you were infected by them, it would be difficult if not impossible for medicine to help you. Some of the packages contained Methicillin-resistant S. aureus, or MRSA, and if you’re not sure how bad that is, here is its description in the April 2011 issue of the journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons:
The number of hospital admissions for MRSA has exploded in the past decade. By 2005, admissions were triple the number in 2000 and 10-fold higher than in 1995. In 2005 in the United States alone, 368,600 hospital admissions for MRSA—including 94,000 invasive infections—resulted in 18,650 deaths. The number of MRSA fatalities in 2005 surpassed the number of fatalities from hurricane Katrina and AIDS combined and is substantially higher than fatalities at the peak of the U. S. polio epidemic.
The contamination found in this study did not originate with the butchers or the packagers or the handlers of the meat, but with the growers. Producers of beef, chicken and pork maximize their profits by overcrowding animals, force-feeding them stuff that makes them sick, and keeping them alive and growing with huge doses of antibiotics, a practice that guarantees the mutation of drug-resistant strains.
The news sources — even the ones who used the bogus half-the-meat-in-America line to snag your eyeballs — fell over themselves finding the on-the-other-hand antidotes for any anxiety, let alone anger, you might feel on learning of this corruption of your food supply. Thus CNN found medical people to assure us that “so far, no one has been able to draw a connection between the presence of those bacteria in meats and human illness,” and, moreover, that “if you follow the hygiene rules that you would follow for Salmonella or E. coli, there shouldn’t be a problem.”
Note: CNN used the half-the-meat-in-America headline, and you know what that means.
Note also: The above quote is a back-handed reference to the fact that you will probably find E. coli and salmonella in the meat along with the staph.
This brings us to the second reason that this scenario is so much worse than the imaginary but plausible bottled-water contamination described above. You could boil the water without touching it, and without its coming into contact with anything but the pot in which you boil it, which itself will be sterilized by the boiling. Meat is something else. You touch it when you take it out of the package, and within seconds you will probably touch your face or the exposed skin of another person. You handle the meat to prepare it for cooking, during which preparation it comes in contact with your counter top, cutting board and utensils.
So note this above all: Somehow the meat industry has established that it is perfectly okay for them to make their money by selling us a food product that should properly be treated as a bio-hazard by people wearing full-body protective clothing who afterward sterilize everything the product touched and every room in which it resided.
Are you okay with that? Or does it make you sick?
[ See also Weapons of Mass Digestion;