A new Consumer Reports study released today warns shoppers that they may be getting more than they bargain for in their packages of pork.

Tests of pork chops and ground pork found widespread contamination by several different bacteria, much of which showed resistance to one or more antibiotics used in human medicine.

The study points to a common practice on pig farms as the culprit:  the constant dosing of animals with antibiotics to  make them grow faster and prevent the spread of disease in crowded living conditions.    The antibiotics kill off some of the bacteria (such as E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter to name a few), but over time the bacteria build resistance and these ‘superbugs’ can quickly spread through a crowded barn.

Contamination of the meat that winds up in our grocery carts can occur during the slaughter and processing of the animals via bacteria spread by workers or equipment.  Unsanitary handling and improper storage can also contribute to the problem.  Consumers can become infected by handling or eating raw or undercooked meat.

Among the key findings in the study:

  • Yersinia enterocolitica was in 69 percent of the tested pork samples.  This pathogen infects about 100,000 Americans a year, especially children.  Salmonella, staphylococcus aureus, or listeria monocytogenes, more common 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 problems such as urinary-tract infections.
  • Some of the bacteria found were resistant to multiple drugs or classes of drugs. That’s worrisome, because if those bugs make you sick, your doctor may need to prescribe more powerful (and expensive) antibiotics.
  • Ground pork was more likely than pork chops to harbor pathogens. That’s to be expected, since grinding meat provides another opportunity for contamination.
  • Some antibiotic claims you’ll see on packaging are misleading. And a “no hormones added” claim might be true but is meaningless, because hormones aren’t allowed in pork production.
The study also tested pork samples for a drug called called ractopamine, originally developed to treat asthma but discovered to promote growth in animals.   Approved for use in livestock in the US, the drug is banned in many other countries including the EU, China and Taiwan.  Consumer Reports found traces of ractopamine in approximately 20% of pork samples at levels well below the FDA’s allowable limit.   However, we believe no drug should be routinely given to animals for the sake of growth promotion, and have concerns about the lack of study of its possible effects in humans.

How to protect yourself  from bugs and drugs in your pork?   If you can, start by buying organic.  This will ensure that your meat is from animals that were given neither ractopamine  nor antibiotics.     If organic is not an option, look for other packages that say ‘raised without antibiotics’ or a similar claim.  This will ensure that you are supporting livestock producers that do not abuse antibiotics (although does not protect against ractopamine use).    When preparing your pork, make sure you cook it to 145 degrees, and thoroughly wash your hands and any surfaces the pork touched.

Finally, join our Meat Without Drugs campaign as we work to move grocery stores away from selling meat raised on antibiotics.    We’re starting with progressive grocer Trader Joe’s, asking the company to stand up for public health and stop selling meat raised with antibiotics.    You can take action here.