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by Jean Halloran, Director, Food Policy Initiatives, Consumers Union

Consumers Union thinks government regulators and pork producers need to take some additional steps to insure the safety of pork.

Last month, Consumer Reports released a major new study on the safety of pork that found that 69 precent of the pork chops and ground pork tested contained Yersinia enterocolitica, a known cause of foodborne illness.  Salmonella and Staphyloccus aureus also showed up in the tests.   In addition, almost all of the bacteria found on pork were resistant to one or more antibiotics. Further, 20 percent of samples tested contained low levels of ractopamine, a growth promoting drug that is banned in the European Union and China on safety grounds.

Consumers Union (CU), the advocacy division of Consumer Reports, believes these results are serious cause for concern.  CU is urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to reduce these pathogens and and eliminate ractopamine from pork products, and address antibiotic resistance by ending the use of antibiotics on livestock except for treatment of sick animals.

The pork industry, focused on its bottom line, unfortunately responded by attempting to shoot the messenger.  Despite the Consumer  Reports test being one of the largest pork surveys of its kind to date, the pork industry attacked the study’s sample size as was too small and called the story “sensationalism.”

Given Consumer Reports findings of Yersinia in more than two-thirds of pork samples tested, we think that pork producers, rather than complaining about test results, should start trying to reduce this pathogen.   USDA should also begin to regulate it.   We have urged USDA to do a larger research study, something it has been considering since at least 2010. USDA planned to test for this pathogen in its 2010 Nationwide Market Hog Microbiological Baseline Survey (MHBS) “because the transfer of these pathogens may occur…during slaughter.” This USDA survey is designed to estimate the national prevalence and levels of bacteria in pork of public health concern. However inexplicably, when the actual study involving tests on thousands of samples, was completed, USDA failed to test for Yersinia. Rather, it tested only for salmonella–which USDA (and Consumer Reports) found at very low levels, less than five percent of samples.

Dr. Richard Raymond, USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety in the Bush Administration, in a blog, argued that Consumer Reports“purported 69% contamination rate” seems inconsistent with a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) finding of just 950 laboratory-confirmed cases of Yersinia-induced illness in people in 2009, and asks how Consumer Reports can explain this.

That’s not hard. CDC itself says that the 950 confirmed cases are just the tip of the iceberg—that’s because the vast majority of cases of food borne illness go unreported—and they estimate that each year there are more likely to be close to 100,000 cases of foodborne illness caused by Yersinia.

Consumers Union also urges the industry and the FDA to eliminate use of antibiotics in pork production except for treatment of sick animals.   We, and more than a dozen major medical organizations including the American Medical Association, the Infectious Disease Society of America, the World Health Organization, the American Public Health Association and many more, all believe that antibiotic use in animals is an important contributing cause of resistance problems in humans, and that because of this, at the very least, use of these valuable drugs should be prohibited for growth promotion use in animals.

Given the seriousness of the current crisis of antibiotic resistance, Consumers Union has launched a Meat Without Drugs campaign to convince major supermarket chains to sell only meat and poultry raised without antibiotics.  (See www.NotInMyFood.org for information on this effort.)