MRSA in milk – a food safety issue?

| December 21, 2012 | 0 Comments

The approach of the Christmas festivities generally prompts national food safety and public health bodies to issue timely advice to consumers about the risk of poisoning their families with undercooked turkey and other seasonal delicacies.

These well-intentioned warnings usually disappear under the deluge of Christmas recipes littering the pages of newspapers and magazines. Some of these can be questionable from a food safety point of view, such as the pâté made using undercooked chicken livers I spotted in a national daily last week. Fortunately, since the recipe contained over a dozen ingredients and appeared to require most of the day to prepare, I doubt any readers would actually get as far as offering any to their guests.

Christmas also heralds the end of the year and the annual compulsion, both to look back over the last 12 months and to look forward to what the next 12 may bring. With the latter in mind, I was intrigued to read that a type of MRSA known to infect humans has been isolated from bulk milk tanks in the UK for the first time. MRSA has been turning up in livestock around the world for some years, but concerns have mainly been focused on the risk to farmworkers and meat handlers, rather than on the implications for the food chain. In fact this latest report dismisses the risk of foodborne transmission by asserting that the bacteria would be destroyed by pasteurisation.

At first sight this would seem to be correct, but unpasteurised milk is still occasionally used, misguidedly in my view, for drinking and for making cheese and other dairy products. Furthermore, Staphylococcus aureus can cause problems in the cheese-making process when the starter culture fails to produce acid sufficiently quickly. While MRSA seems an unlikely food hazard, as evidenced by the relative absence of foodborne infections, I cannot help feeling that the risks need more careful consideration and research. I am not saying that MRSA should be considered as a significant food safety hazard, but can we really be certain that it should not?

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