How Safe is the Other White Meat? Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Found in Pork

Today comes news of the latest gnarly discovery in the world of food safety: yersinia enterocolitica bacteria were found in 69% of the nearly 200 random pork samples tested from six US cities in a study by Consumer Reports, the widely respected independent consumer advocacy organization.

On top of yersinia, to which children are particularly susceptible, researchers found salmonella, staphylococcus aureus, or listeria monocytogenes in three to seven percent of the samples; these, too, were largely antibiotic resistant. Consumer Reports tested pork chops and ground pork; of the two, “ground pork was more likely to harbor pathogens”. What’s worse: many of the bacteria found in testing proved resistant to at least one commonly used antibiotic.

Remember, all of us, human or animals, have bacteria on our skins and in our gastrointestinal tracts, where they're generally welcome as good gut guests. (Activia, anyone?) And while animal muscles are sterile to begin with, during meat processing they can be contaminated thanks to workers, the animal’s skin or equipment and the environment.  Given the type of bacteria found in this study, the likeliest filthy culprit among samples is fecal contamination.  Once you're hosting the “bad” bacteria, poor storage or unsanitary conditions allow them to proliferate, and voila! You've got a buggy problem on your hands.

Other findings? Low, but detectible levels of ractopamine were found in one-fifth of the samples; ractopamine, administered to pigs to promote growth and leannessis a “beta-agonist drug” which can cause restlessness, anxiety, fast heart rate and other effects,. There are no labels which disclose the presence of the drug, as it doesn’t fall under the umbrellas of “no antibiotics used” or “no hormones used”; the Consumers Union (the advocacy and policy arm of Consumer Reports) has called for a ban on the substance as there is insufficient evidence of its safety. While legal and commonly used in the US, the European Union, China and Taiwan have banned the drug.

What Can We Do To Be Safe?

A couple of things. First, when shopping for your pork products, you can choose those which are certified organic. That label indicates the animal was raised without antibiotics or ractopamine. You can also look for animal welfare labels – such as those from Animal Welfare Approved or Certified Humane – as they prohibit use of drugs unless medically necessary. Here’s what you DON'T want to do: buy “natural”, a meaningless label. A similarly weightless moniker: “no hormones”; they're not allowed for use in pork production to begin with. For more specific help, try GRACE’s Eat Well Guide to find retailers in your area who sell organic pork. And remember to ask your grocer, butcher or retailer if they can start to carry organic meats if they aren’t already.

When you're cooking and handling the meat, wash your hands thoroughly; keep your surfaces and utensils clean and wash immediately after use. Cook the meat to at least 145 degrees for whole pork and 160 degrees for ground pork.

Meat Without Drugs

As this is but the latest in a flurry of meat safety stories this year, you may recall that the Consumers Union kicked off their Meat Without Drugs campaign to take on antibiotic use in industrial agriculture, which is rampant. Over 80% of the antibiotics sold in the US are given to animals we raise for food. I know what you're thinking: some of those doses treat infections, and that’s true. But most aren’t; they're given to promote growth and prevent infections that are far more likely to spread in the crowded, filthy conditions that animals in industrial operations call home. Over time, bacteria present on and in an animal can adapt to survive when antibiotics are administered, so we have to use even more powerful (and expensive) ones instead. Given even more time, you can end up with so-called “superbugs” such as MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant and potentially fatal staph infection.

So yes, it matters. If you'd like to get involved and make your voice heard on this issue, see this link to visit Not in My Food and learn more about the Consumers Union campaign which is asking Trader Joe’s to take the lead and only sell no-antibiotics meat.