Government and industry have moved to reassure consumers about the safety of supermarket pork after the superbug MRSA was found in products on sale in major retailers.
But they also acknowledged resistance to antibiotics was a growing issue, and said tougher government checks on MRSA in livestock could be needed.
The Guardian today published an article reporting imported pork products from Denmark and Ireland on sale in Asda, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and The Co-operative had tested positive for the MRSA variant CC398. The Guardian tested 74 products from Denmark, 25 from the UK and one from Ireland. None of the British products it tested were positive for MRSA.
But in a separate investigation, the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics – which is backed by the Soil Association and Compassion in World Farming – published test results on 52 British pork products sold in supermarkets, which found MRSA in two samples: one sausage and one pack of pork mince. ASOA did not give further product details on the two positive samples or say which retailers had sold them.
The ASOA said both sets of results showed British consumers were at risk of being exposed to MRSA. “In fact, a person eating pork just twice a week may be consuming contaminated meat once every three months,” it claimed.
“The presence of this MRSA in retail meat clearly demonstrates a potential pathway for the transmission of antimicrobial resistance from livestock to the broader human population, and not just to those with direct contact with farm animals,” added Dr Mark Holmes at the University of Cambridge, who carried out the tests for ASOA.
But Defra, the Food Standards Agency and the National Pig Association stressed consumers were not at risk from livestock-associated MRSA strains discovered in the tests.
“Livestock-associated MRSA is not the same as MRSA strains that can cause healthcare-associated infections,” Defra said. “The FSA and Public Health England both advise that if meat is handled and prepared properly, the risk to people is extremely low and there are no known cases of people contracting MRSA from eating meat.”
But it said tackling resistance to antibiotics was one of the government’s key priorities and it would consider new surveillance measures.
“Defra and the National Pig Association recommend that anyone importing pigs to Britain should have them screened for infection,” Defra said. “The government is currently reviewing options for increased surveillance of LA-MRSA, which will be proportionate to the very low health risk.”
The National Pig Association added responsible antibiotics use was important to the British pig industry. ““The industry takes its responsibilities very seriously in relation to antibiotics and works to guidelines laid down by RUMA (Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture) which state all veterinary medicines, including antibiotics, should be administered as little as possible but as much as necessary.”
The British Retail Consortium said antiobiotic resistance was an important topic for retailers. “We continue to work with the FSA and other government departments to link into their work on this topic,” said director of food and sustainability Andrew Opie. ”The BRC are members of the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA) who have produced guidelines on the responsible use of antibiotics that reflect concerns both on the potential impact of antibiotics use on humans and the welfare of animals. It provides pragmatic guidance for farmers that strikes the appropriate balance between animal welfare and ensuring antibiotics are only used where necessary and alongside good husbandry.”
Meanwhile, the Irish Farmers Association said: ”Irish pig farmers produce pig meat to the highest quality standards as part of the Bord Bia Pigmeat Quality Assurance Scheme. Under this scheme producers are required to only use medicines that are authorised by the Irish Medicines Board or by the European Medicines Evaluation Agency. Consumers can be reassured that properly cooked meat is safe for human consumption.”
Danish Crown, the major Danish supplier of pork products and owner of Tulip, said it wa taking “all necessary steps” to ensure the quality and safety of its products. “We are proud to be able to offer UK retailers the choice of using British or Danish sourced meat,” it added. ”We are also working in conjunction with the British and Danish pig industries on ways to minimise the risk of (LA)-MRSA.”