Resistant Bacteria in Pork — And Problematic Pharmaceuticals Too

Bad news today from an investigation conducted by Consumers Union that was released on the web and will be published in the January issue of the nonprofit’s magazine, Consumer Reports. Tests on pork chops and ground pork, bought in six cities under a variety of labels, showed high rates of contamination with a range of bacteria, many of which were antibiotic-resistant — and also showed evidence of a drug so controversial that it is banned in some other countries.

The first set of tests, on 198 samples (148 from pork chops and 50 of ground pork), found contamination with Yersinia enterocolitica, Enterococcus, staph, Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes. The rates of contamination with most of those were relatively low — 11 percent of samples for enterococci, 7 percent for staph, less for salmonella and listeria — but the rate for yersinia was a jaw-dropping 69 percent. Only 23 percent of the samples carried none of those bacteria.

Among the bacteria isolated from the pork:

  • Out of 132 samples testing positive for Yersinia, 121 were resistant to at least one class of antibiotics, and 52 were resistant to two or more.
  • Out of 14 samples testing positive for staph, 13 were resistant to at least one class of antibiotics, and nine were resistant to two or more.
  • Out of 8 samples testing positive for salmonella, 6 were resistant to at least one class of antibiotics, and three were resistant to at least five drug types.
  • Out of 19 samples positive for enterococci, 12 were resistant to at least one class of antibiotics.

The second set of tests, on a separate 240 samples, found the controversial drug ractopamine in 20 percent of them. Ractopamine encourages pigs to put on lean muscle. It is legal in the United States — and because it is legal, given, usually without being disclosed, to at least 60 percent of pigs raised here — but it is banned in the European Union, China and Taiwan, which keeps U.S. exports from being sold in those markets. (The Food and Environment Reporting Network, with whom I have collaborated on stories, did an excellent investigation of ractopamine earlier this year.)

Constant readers will recognize that this is yet another in a sadly long line of research that routinely finds antibiotic-resistant bacteria in our food. But in addition to confirming past concerns, this report breaks new ground in two ways. First, there has been little testing for ractopamine in U.S. meat, because it is legal here. Second, most testing programs — including those run by the federal government — don’t test for yersinia, a gut-dwelling bacterium that can cause acute diarrheal illness. Finding yersinia, let alone drug-resistant yersinia, is truly new.

The investigation concludes that programs meant to protect against bacterial contamination are not working, and asked the government for response. USDA told CU: “Very low (bacterial) contamination levels in hog carcasses indicate that companies’ practices are adequately controlling pathogens.”

In addition, the nonprofit asked the hog industry for comment on the ractopamine findings. The response, quoting from the article:

“Ractopamine is approved and used in 26 other countries, including some of the Asian countries,” says Dave Warner, director of communications for the National Pork Producers Council, an industry group. “The issues with China and Taiwan have nothing to do with the safety of the product. Countries that have banned pork or meat from animals fed ractopamine are doing it to protect their domestic pork industries. This is not about food safety.”

Late today, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-New York), the member of Congress who has been the strongest voice for controlling resistant bacteria in food, had this to say about the CU findings:

It’s getting harder and harder for the food processing industry and the FDA to ignore the fact that the overuse of antibiotics in animals is threatening public health. Their half-measures and voluntary guidelines are no longer enough — we must act swiftly to reverse this public health crisis.  I have legislation awaiting a vote in Congress to address this problem once and for all — and it’s time we pass it into law.

For more, find the complete CU investigation, with background documents, at their website via this link.

Photo: Stu_Spivack/Flickr/CC



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