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University of Iowa News Release


June 6, 2011

UI investigators awarded $1.2 million grant to study bacteria in raw meat

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded investigators in the University of Iowa College of Public Health a $1.2 million grant to study Staphylococcus aureus bacteria in raw meat.

The grant is one of 24 research, education and extension grants from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative competitive grants program of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The grants are aimed at reducing food-borne illnesses and deaths through a safe food supply.

Tara Smith, Ph.D., interim director of the UI Center for Emerging Infectious Disease and assistant professor of epidemiology, will lead an investigation of whether Staphylococcus aureus is present on meat and may colonize individuals who handle raw meat.

Several recent studies have investigated Staphylococcus aureus, commonly called "staph," in raw meat. A recent study in Louisiana found approximately 40 percent of meat samples in the study tested positive for various types of staph, including 5 percent of meat samples that tested positive for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a type of staph that is resistant to the broad-spectrum antibiotics commonly used to treat it.

In previous studies, Smith has found staph strains, including MRSA, in live swine and swine workers, as well as in some meat products in Iowa. While staph has been considered a food-borne pathogen in previous studies, research examining Staphylococcus aureus in food has largely focused on the toxins produced by food-borne bacteria. UI researchers will examine raw meats as a potential origin and vector for colonization of consumers who handle raw meat products.

"At the conclusion of this study, we expect to determine the impact of contaminated meat on human colonization with Staphylococcus aureus and determine the origin -- human versus animal -- of meat contamination," Smith said. "These results will have important implications for public health policy, including whether to begin routine, nationwide surveillance for MRSA on meat products."

In addition to Smith, the research team includes: Kelley Donham, DVM, UI professor of occupational and environmental health; James Merchant, M.D., Dr.P.H., UI professor of occupational and environmental health; Gerard Rushton, Ph.D., UI professor of geography; Lance Price, Ph.D., Translational Genomics Research Institute in Arizona; and Scott Meschke, Ph.D., University of Washington.

STORY SOURCE: The University of Iowa College of Public Health Office of Communications and External Relations, 4258 Westlawn, Iowa City, Iowa 52242

MEDIA CONTACT: Dan McMillan,, 319-335-6835. Writer: Hannah Fletcher