By far, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love that the only thing you're pressured to buy is food, and the only thing you're supposed to do is be thankful (well, other than cook). No gifting, no stuffing candy in plastic eggs, no singing, no pine needles in the carpet. Just the F's: food, family, and friends.
But now we can add some additional letters to the holiday: M-R-S-A, as in methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. And MRSA is bad stuff. Because not only is the problematic bacteria that causes staph infections resistant to the antibiotic methicillin, it is becoming resistant to other antibiotics and it is showing up in more and more places. It left the realm of hospitals long ago, and now is common in locker rooms and sporting fields, and unfortunately, it is all over our food.
I've written about this issue before, but not since last year. By all accounts, the situation is becoming more grim, with more types of supermarket meat containing drug-resistant Staph. Originally limited to pork products, these superbugs have been found also in beef, chicken, and, just in time for Thanksgiving, turkey. Other strains of Staph aureus on meat have shown resistance to other antibiotics, including tetracycline (TRSA?). Maryn McKenna, over at Wired.com, follows this issue closely and keeps us updated on the decided lack of progress in addressing it. Here is her most recent report on the topic.
What can you do to reduce your risk of being exposed or infected by MRSA or other superbugs from your meats? Well, I think a reasonable approach is to treat your kitchen like it is a laboratory.
When you work in a lab, there are standard practices to avoid contamination and keep your samples sterile. While most home cooks will not keep a squirt bottle of ethanol handy to wipe down their stainless steel surfaces or work under a negative-flow ventilation hood, there are consumer-friendly practices to maintain a clean work environment in your kitchen and not spread bacteria that may be on your pre-cooked food to your work surfaces where it can then contaminate other foods.
As always, the first line of defense is prevention. Try not to bring MRSA-tainted meat into your home in the first place. That means buying meat derived from animals that were raised organically. They will not have have been fed antibiotics without reason and have a far lesser chance of harboring antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Even mass-produced meats can be handled safely with a few extra precautions. For example, purchase a non-porous (that means no wood) cutting board specifically for meat. This board comes out only for meat and is put in the dishwasher immediately after meat is prepared on it. If you don't have a dishwasher, boil water and use that along with dishwashing soap to clean the board after use. The water has to be super hot in order to sterilize the surface. Same with the utensils you used to prep the meat.
Before you begin working with the meat, you may want to consider how to turn on your water with your elbow, or turn it on before you start working with the meat so you will not have to touch the handles (visualize surgeons scrubbing down and going into the operating room with their hands parallel to their bodies and pushing open doors with their bodies, etc). Handles are petri dishes for germs.
After you work with the meat and put the cutting board away, wipe down your counters with hot soapy water or a disinfectant, using a sponge dedicated for this purpose or disposable paper towels or wipes. Microwave the sponge, or put it in the dishwasher, after you have used it.
Then, wash you hands with soap and hot water. If you have cuts on your hands or fingers, or if your hands are dry enough to have cracked skin, consider wearing gloves when you handle meat. Bacteria living on the surface of your skin may not be a problem (except for spreading it around), but bacteria entering your body through a cut can be a whole different story.
Cooking foods properly will kill MRSA and other bacteria, so make sure the big holiday turkey is completely done before you take it out of the oven. And, I'd think twice about cooking stuffing inside the bird. There have always been concerns that the moist stuffing inside the bird is a breeding ground for bacteria, but now that bacteria is so much more dangerous, I just wouldn't go there.
What I've just outlined is merely an amping up of common-sense kitchen rules. But because of our overall lack of education in food preparation, I rarely see people practice them. If you do them diligently, they'll go a long way toward lowering your risk of contaminating your food with all sorts of food-borne bacteria, not just MRSA.
So Happy Thanksgiving! Be safe and enjoy this meaningful US holiday.