Retailers who stock pork might want to take a more critical look at how it’s raised and processed after a recent Consumer Union investigation found “the other white meat” riddled with antibiotic-resistant bacteria and traces of a potentially harmful veterinary drug.
The study, published in the January 2013 issue of Consumer Reports, found that, of 148 pork chop and 50 ground pork samples bought at conventional and natural retailers in six cities, 77 percent tested positive for bacteria that can cause foodborne illness. A separate test of 240 pork samples found that one-fifth contained traces of ractopamine, a drug associated with restlessness, anxiety and elevated heart rate in animals.We asked Michael Crupain, MD, MPH, director of Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center, about the study.
Natural Foods Merchandiser: What surprised you most?
Michael Crupain:The fact that 69 percent of the samples tested positive for Yersinia enterocolitica. This bacteria is not on the tip of most people’s tongues, and the USDA does not typically look for this when doing surveillance. But it causes more than 100,000 cases of foodborne illnesses per year. We also found salmonella (4 percent), staphylococcus aureus (7 percent), listeria monocytogenes (3 percent)—which are more common causes of foodborne illness—and enterococcus (11 percent), which can indicate fecal contamination and cause urinary tract infections.
How do bacteria get into the meat?
MC: Bacteria are everywhere—on the skin and inside the gastrointestinal tract—but it is not normally inside the muscle, which we eat. Meat can become contaminated during processing, packaging and handling. As the report states, “Confining animals in less than clean quarters can allow bad bacteria to proliferate … and contamination is especially likely to occur if processing lines run too fast or sanitary practices aren’t followed.”
How does bacteria become antibiotic resistant?
MC: Administering antibiotics in low doses that don’t necessarily kill the bacteria promotes and enhances this evolutionary process of resistance. We know that 80 percent of all antibiotics go to animals, and the majority of those are going to healthy animals to promote growth and prevent diseases. This study shows that antibiotic-resistant bacteria on meat are a big problem.
Why should we care about antibiotic resistance?
MC: It is a major threat to public health and makes treating infections in people a lot more difficult and expensive because it requires doctors to use more advanced antibiotics. One way to protect our antibiotics is to use them appropriately.
What is the take-home message?
MC: The point is not to say that pork is not safe or that people should not eat pork. We just believe that the way animals are raised and handled in this country is not safe.
Does USDA Organic pork have less bacteria?
MC: Not necessarily. The level of bacteria on the meat is more about the standards at the processing plant. You would think animals that are not given low-dose antibiotics might have a lower percentage of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but we have not been able to show that yet.
What can retailers do to address this issue?
MC: Stock more meat that is raised without the use of unnecessary antibiotics that are used just for growth promotion and disease prophylaxis. Also, ask for pork with no ractopamine in it. Stocking USDA Organic is one way to achieve this, but there are other labels, such as “Animal Welfare Approved” and “Certified Humane” that indicate the prudent use of antibiotics. Also, watch out for misleading labels. “Natural” doesn’t mean much.
What should retailers tell consumers about staying safe?
MC: Whenever you handle any meat product, wash your kitchen surfaces and cook your pork to an internal temperature of 145 degrees for pork chops or 160 degrees for ground pork. A lot of people assume that we found these bacteria and if they eat pork they will get sick. But really illness results because they contaminate the rest of their kitchens.
A Second Opinion: Council calls pork study junk science
Members of the National Pork Producers Council, a trade group, call the new Consumer Reports study on pork “junk science that wouldn’t stand up to even elementary scrutiny.”
“The sample size is way too small to reach the conclusions that they reached,” says council spokesman Dave Warner.
Warner says that Yersinia enterocolitica—present in 69 percent of the samples tested—consists of more than 50 varieties, or serotypes, only about 10 of which actually cause illness. He also notes that many of the antibiotics characterized as resistant are “not considered critically important to human health” anyway.
While he says the industry is “not overusing antibiotics,” he defends the prudent use of the drugs as a means of protecting public health. “Antibiotics are used in pork production to keep animals safe and healthy, and healthy animals produce safe meat,” he says. “There are no scientific studies linking antibiotic use in animals with antibiotic resistance in humans.”
He says that ractopamine—used to make pork less fatty—is “FDA approved and safe.”
He and Consumer Reports do agree on one thing: “Bacteria are everywhere.” He advises consumers to wash hands and counters frequently when handling meat, and cook it well.