Consumer Reports investigation finds harmful bacteria in pork products

A Consumer Reports analysis of pork-chop and ground-pork samples from around the United States found widespread presence of yersina enterocolitica, a bacterium that can cause fever, diarrhea and abdominal pain. The report, available in the publication's January 2013 issue and online, also said some samples included other potentially harmful bacteria, including salmonella.

The majority of the Yersinia, as well as a substantial portion of several other bacteria detected, were resistant to medically important antibiotics Consumer Reports tested.

"Antibiotics are routinely fed to healthy animals at low levels. This practice promotes the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria which are a major public health concern," said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Director of Safety and Sustainability at Consumer Reports. "Infections caused by resistant bacteria are more difficult to treat and can lead to increased suffering and costs."

A separate test for ractopamine, a drug used to promote growth and leanness in pigs, found very low levels. Although approved for use in the United States, the drug is banned in China and Taiwan and in all of the European Union. Several countries had safety concerns about ractopamine, which is similar to drugs used to treat asthma.

"No drugs, including ractopamine and antibiotics, should be fed routinely to healthy animals for growth promotion and to prevent disease. These practices are harmful to public health, which is why they are banned in Europe," said Dr. Michael Hansen senior scientist for Consumer Reports.

Consumer Reports tested 148 samples of meat from pork chops and 50 from ground pork.  The pork samples came from many major and store brands, but the sample sizes for each were small and distinctions among them could not be drawn, the publication noted. In a separate test to determine the presence of ractopamine, Consumer Reports analyzed 240 additional pork products. Here are some key findings:

  • Yersinia enterocolitica, was found in 69 percent of the tested pork samples. This bacteria is estimated to cause foodborne illness in about 100,000 Americans a year, especially children, and is associated with pork.
  • Salmonella, staphylococcus aureus, or listeria monocytogenes, more well-known causes of foodborne illness, were found in 3 to 7 percent of samples. And 11 percent harbored enterococcus, which can indicate fecal contamination and can cause non-foodborne related infections such as urinary-tract infections.
  • Most of the bacteria found were resistant to at least one of the tested antibiotic drugs. This is also worrisome because people infected by those bugs may need to take a stronger (and more expensive) antibiotic.
  • Ground pork was more likely than pork chops to harbor pathogens.
  • Very low, but detectible levels of ractopamine were found in about one-fifth of the samples tested for the drug.  Beta-agonist drugs like ractopamine can cause restlessness, anxiety, fast heart rate and other effects. While levels found were below U.S. and international limits, Consumers Union, the policy and action arm of Consumer Reports, calls for a ban on the drug, citing insufficient evidence that it is safe.
  • Misleading and unapproved claims such as "no antibiotic growth promotants" and "no antibiotic residues" were found on some packages of pork and reported to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for investigation.
  • No labels disclose the use of ractopamine. Government standards for "no antibiotics used" and "no hormones added" claims do not prohibit the use of ractopamine.

What you can tell patients
Consumers can minimize their risks through both how they handle and prepare their pork and by how they shop for it. Consumer Reports offered the following tips for safe preparation and handling:

  • Wash hands thoroughly after preparing raw meat.
  • Place cutting boards and other utensils used to prepare raw meat directly into the dishwasher or wash thoroughly with soap.
  • Use a meat thermometer when cooking pork to ensure it reaches the proper internal temperature to kill potentially harmful bacteria of at least 145º F for whole pork and 160º F for ground pork.
  • As with other meats, keep raw pork and its juices separate from other foods, especially those eaten raw, such as salad.

Photo attributed to George Chriss via Creative Commons license.

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