It was found during a test of seafood in a Saskatoon grocery store: frozen, raw squid carrying antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Canadian scientists say it’s the first time a superbug has been found in food.
For the most part, health officials have been battling superbugs in hospitals, elder care homes and other health care settings. But finding antibiotic-resistant bacteria in food products isn’t even the worst part, according to the University of Saskatchewan researchers who conducted the study.
“Finding this bacteria in food isn’t the most worrisome part, it’s really finding the gene. Bacteria can share DNA with each other, including resistance genes,” lead researcher, Dr. Joseph Rubin, an assistant professor of veterinary microbiology, told Global News.
Because bacteria adapts and evolves so quickly, it can share its stealthy characteristics, such as resistance to antibiotics.
“Finding the gene in food means it’s available to other organisms, including potential pathogens. And because it’s in food, it’s available to organisms in the home. The big thing is that the segment of population at risk of exposure increases from people who have just travelled to where this bacteria is common, hospitalized or received antibiotics. It expands into the general public,” Rubin warned.
Rubin is a University of Saskatchewan scientist specializing in studying antibiotic resistant micro-organisms, and how people and animals interact with their environment and food.
The bacteria is called Pseudomonas fluorescens. It’s not necessarily deadly in most people with healthy immune systems but the gene they discovered makes it immune to carbapenems – dubbed the last line of defense against superbugs.
So how did the bacteria get on the squid? Rubin calls it the “million-dollar question.”
Poultry, pork and beef are often tested under surveillance programs, but the microbiologist wanted to consider other products because niche markets are burgeoning in Canada. In his pilot study, he looked at six items: two squids, two black sea cucumbers, and two packages of frog legs.
One of the squid samples came back with this bacteria. Right now, there is no evidence that could point to how the contamination happened. It could have been environmental, through cross-contamination when it was caught, processed, shipped or even placed in the store.
“There’s a lot we don’t know about the supply chain and we don’t know where the critical control points are where we can effectively intervene to prevent the introduction of this organism into the food supply,” he said.
The product was for sale in a Chinese grocery store in January in Saskatoon, but it was from South Korea, according to the store owner.
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He’s taking on a larger study now that’ll look at how widespread these organisms are in our food.
For now, he’s telling Canadian consumers to practice food hygiene. Don’t cross-contaminate between different surfaces while working with raw meat, cook your meat thoroughly, disinfect your kitchen counter and cooking tools and wash your hands.
If consumers came across that contaminated squid, cooking it at the proper internal temperature would kill the bacteria, Rubin said.
His findings were published Wednesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Read his full letter here.