"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.
The complete report and analysis can be found in the January 2013 issue of Consumer Reports and online at www.ConsumerReports.org.
Consumer Reports Findings
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. 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 lesser-known 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 we 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 USDA 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.
How Pigs Become Contaminated
All animals (humans included) have bacteria on their skin and in their gastrointestinal tract. Although these bacteria may not always harm the animal itself, many have the potential to cause illness in humans. During slaughter and processing, the normally sterile muscle (meat) can become contaminated with bacteria from the animal's skin or gut as well as from workers, equipment or the environment. A typical hog barn can contain more than 2,000 pigs; confining animals in these types of conditions and feeding them low levels of antibiotics can promote the development and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can then be transferred to humans.
What Consumers Can Do
Consumers can minimize their risks through both how they handle and prepare their pork and by how they shop for it.
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.
Tips for Choosing Meaningful Labels while Shopping for Pork:
- Choose pork and other meat products that were raised without drugs such as those labeled "certified organic," which means the animal was raised without antibiotics or ractopamine.
- Look for animal welfare labels such as Animal Welfare Approved or Certified Humane that prohibit the use of ractopamine and allow antibiotics only for disease treatment.
- Look for a clear statement regarding antibiotic use. "No antibiotics used" claims with a USDA Process Verified shield are more reliable than those without certification. However, ractopamine may still have been used.
- Do not go by the "Natural" label. "Natural" has nothing to do with antibiotic use or how an animal was raised. Consumer Reports also found unapproved claims such as "no antibiotics residues" and "no antibiotic growth promotants."
- Recognize that "No hormones added" claims are true but hormones are not allowed in any pork production and ractopamine may still have been used.
A Call to Action
Consumers Union recently launched its Meat Without Drugs campaign to persuade grocery stores to stop selling meat and poultry raised on a steady diet of antibiotics. Consumers Union is focusing its initial campaign efforts on Trader Joe's, the national specialty grocer.
Consumers Union has also urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prohibit the use of antibiotics in food animals for growth promotion and disease prevention. Consumers Union believes the FDA should limit antibiotic use to the treatment of veterinarian-diagnosed sick animals only. Unfortunately, proposals to limit antibiotics in animal feed have been blocked for decades.
"It is time for the government to take action now. In the meantime, companies can be proactive," said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union. "We are calling on retailers and grocery stores, starting with Trader Joe's, to commit to stopping these practices and stocking only meat that was raised without feeding antibiotics to healthy animals."
Consumers Union also believes the government should take the following steps:
- Phase out the use of antibiotics on livestock except for the treatment of sick animals.
- Require drug companies and feed mills to disclose all sales of antibiotics for use in food animals, broken down by drug, animal species and purpose (growth promotion, disease prevention, disease treatment).
- Simplify and enforce labeling requirements for "no antibiotic" claims and prohibit meat labeled as "natural" to be produced with any drugs or antibiotics.
- Improve surveillance of foodborne illness involving antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
- Require companies to reduce levels of yersinia bacteria, a disease causing organisms, in pork.
Consumer Reports is the world's largest independent product-testing organization. Using its more than 50 labs, auto test center, and survey research center, the nonprofit rates thousands of products and services annually. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has over 8 million subscribers to its magazine, website and other publications. Its advocacy division, Consumers Union, works for health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.
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