Pork Contamination: Valid cause for concern or advocacy scare tactic?

Consumer Reports' latest test of pork products raises concerns about bacteria contamination, antibiotics and other drugs used in pork production.

But pork producers are taking aim at the validity of the tests, the accuracy of Consumer Reports' information and what the industry calls the hidden agenda of Consumer's Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports Magazine.

The following are Consumer Reports' own report on it's pork tests, and response to that report, by the National Pork Producers Council

Pork Contamination Concerns
By: Consumer Reports

It used to be trichinosis was the big fear when eating pork, but the risk of getting that disease has been largely eliminated. However, Consumer Reports' latest tests of pork find there are new reasons to take precautions.

Consumer Reports' lab tests of almost 200 samples of pork chops and ground pork found more than two-thirds were contaminated with a bacteria called yersinia enterocolitica. That bacteria can cause fever and abdominal pain. Even more troubling is the vast majority of the yersinia bacteria that Consumer Reports found were resistant to one or more commonly used antibiotics.

Consumer Reports also found that a few pork samples were contaminated with other bacteria that can be harmful, including salmonella and staphylococcus. And again, some of the bacteria were resistant to certain antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance is worrisome because it can lead to infections in humans that are more difficult to treat.

Healthy pigs are commonly given low doses of antibiotics to prevent infections and promote growth. That can accelerate the development of drug-resistant bacteria. A second Consumer Reports test of 240 pork samples found that about 20 percent had traces of the drug ractopamine. That's used in pigs to promote growth and make meat lean.

A major pork producer, Smithfield, says ractopamine is "a safe and effective Food and Drug Administration-approved feed supplement that has been widely used in the hog farming industry for many years." The levels Consumer Reports found were well below the limits set by the FDA. But Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, believes that ractopamine should be banned because there isn't enough evidence that it's safe for humans.

Consumer Reports recommends buying meat raised without antibiotics and ractopamine. It's also important to cook pork thoroughly to kill any possible bacteria. Whole pork such as chops and tenderloin should be cooked to 145 F. Ground pork needs to reach 160 F.

As for finding pork that has not been given antibiotics or ractopamine, Consumer Reports says look for meat labeled "certified organic." Another option is to buy from Whole Foods, which requires producers not to use antibiotics or ractopamine.

National Pork Producers Council Response To Consumer Reports Story:

On the day the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suspended a company's production because of salmonella-tainted organic peanut butter, the advocacy group Consumers Union published an article - in its magazine Consumer Reports - designed to scare consumers into purchasing only organic pork by using junk science against pork from conventionally raised hogs.

"Consumers Union resorted to sensationalism because the 'science' it used wouldn't stand up to even elementary scrutiny," said R.C. Hunt, a pork producer from Wilson, N.C., and president of the National Pork Producers Council. "It's another attempt by that advocacy group to push a social agenda that is not based on science and one that, if successful, would take choice away from consumers."

NPPC and scientists such as Dr. Scott Hurd, former U.S. Department of Agriculture deputy undersecretary for food safety, strongly criticized Consumers Union for attempting to link antibiotics use in food animals with antibiotic resistance in humans and for ignoring more than 15 years of data from federal public health agencies, showing significant reductions in bacteria on meat. Among their criticisms of the "findings" in the Consumer Reports article:
  • The low number of samples tested (198) does not provide a nationally informative estimate of the true prevalence of the cited bacteria on meat.
  • Yersinia enterocolitica found by Consumers Union on some pork has more than 50 serotypes and several biotypes, only a few of which are pathogenic and, thus, could cause illness. Consumers Union either did not conduct, or chose not to report the results of, tests to determine if the bacteria it found were pathogenic. Federal surveillance data show a greater than 50 percent decline in human Yersinia cases since 1996. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports a low number of U.S. cases, so low, in fact, that USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service does not test pork for it.
  • The few antibiotics the article cited as being unable to treat some bacteria - because of resistance - are in classes that are not considered critically important to human health. Regardless, virtually every bacteria has some antibiotics to which it is resistant.
  • Consumers Union cast aspersions on the FDA approval process for animal drugs by referring to European concerns over ractopamine, a feed supplement approved by FDA and the United Nations' food-safety standards-setting body after in-depth scientific analysis. Additionally, ractopamine is not an antibiotic.
"This report was obviously written to support Consumers Union's claim that antibiotics use in food animal production is the major cause of antibiotic resistance, or treatment failures, in human medicine," Hunt said. "The article and Consumers Union disregarded numerous peer-reviewed risk assessments that show any risk to human health from antibiotics use in food animals is negligible.

"The simple fact is that pork producers like me use FDA-approved antibiotics very judiciously to keep our animals healthy and to produce safe pork for consumers."