British pork is infected with a drug-resistant strain of MRSA, The Guardian has reported. Three out of 97 pork products sampled from Asda and Sainsbury’s were contaminated with the superbug, which can cause serious health problems in people.
According to the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there is a loophole in import regulations where pigs infected with the strain — called MRSA CC398 — can enter the UK from countries such as Denmark, which have many cases of the bug. In the country, about two-thirds of pig farms have been affected, and 12,000 people are believed to have contracted it.
CC398 isn’t the same strain that’s estimated to kill 300 people in hospitals each year in England and Wales, but it can still be very harmful for people with compromised immune systems, much older people, or those with HIV. Four people in Denmark have reportedly died from being infected with the bug, according to the Pig Research Centre.
The bug can be spread through poor hygiene when cooking, or being passed from infected pigs to farmers. Cooking meat thoroughly should kill the germs, but people can get infected if dirty surfaces are left uncleaned after food preparation.
There are currently no screening procedures in place for CC398 on British farms, so there’s no way to know whether the pork you buy will be contaminated or not. Screening for CC398 is voluntary, so the number of infected animals brought into the UK is unknown.
There’s also no evidence to suggest that the products came from imported pigs, or whether UK pig herds have actually been infected, but imported pigs seem to be the most likely source due to the low level of the strain in UK farms so far.
The spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is often associated with the overuse of antibiotics in farming.
When animals are continuously fed food with antibiotics in it, there is no chance germs can thrive. However, this provides the opportunity for the resistant strains to grow because they have no competition.
When large numbers of these resistant bacteria grow, it’s a lot harder to get rid of them, and a lot harder to treat the animals that get infected. We are quickly running out of the antibiotics that kill them. The government has been tackling this problem, but it may have meant that the threat from imported animals has been overlooked.
“If we don’t have tight infection control and we don’t try to control the movement of live animals, infection can spread,” Professor Tim Lang of the Centre for Food Policy at City University told The Guardian. “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,” Lang added.