University of Iowa researchers have won a $1.2 million U.S.D.A. grant for a study on the spread of a common bacteria. Tara Smith, the interim director of the U-I Center for Emerging and Infectious Disease, says they will study Staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria carried by about one third of people in their noses.

It also occurs in the environment and in raw meat products, especially pork. Smith says they want to find out how big a role raw meat plays in spreading the bacteria to people who develop staph infections. Smith says they’ll look at how readily the bacteria is spread through the handling of meat products.

Smith says they know that people who are contaminated with staph bacteria can contaminate meat products when they touch them. She says other research has shown that the bacteria can be carried in pigs, cows, turkeys and chickens, and the bacteria can come directly from the animals. Smith says the bacteria can cause many problems if it is spread.

Smith says it can cause some “pretty nasty infections,” which are mostly skin and soft tissue infections. She says a lot of people think they have spider bites, but those are actually staph infections. Smith says staph infections are actually one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. Smith, who is an assistant professor of epidemiology, says they need to first determine how much an impact meat plays in the spread of staph.

Smith says the first part of the study is to get a handle on how common staph is in meat and then later if they see that meat handling is a risk, they can look at some ways to make handling the food safer. Smith says the grant will fund five years of study.