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Analysis finds contaminated U.S. pork products

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What You Can Do

These steps can help you minimize the risk of foodborne illness or discourage the routine use of antibiotics in agriculture:

  • When cooking pork, use a meat thermometer to ensure that it reaches the proper internal temperature, which kills potentially harmful bacteria: at least 145° F for whole pork and 160° F for ground pork. (See our buying guide to meat thermometers.)
  • As with other meats, keep raw pork and its juices separate from other foods, especially those eaten raw, such as salad.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw meat.
  • Choose pork and other meat products that were raised without drugs. One way to do that is to buy certified organic pork, from pigs raised without antibiotics or ractopamine. Another option is to buy from Whole Foods, which requires that producers not use either type of drug.
  • Look for a clear statement regarding antibiotic use. “No antibiotics used” claims with a USDA Process Verified shield are more reliable than those without verification. Labels such as “Animal Welfare Approved” and “Certified Humane” indicate the prudent use of antibiotics to treat illness.
  • Watch out for misleading labels. “Natural” has nothing to do with antibiotic use or how an animal was raised. We found unapproved claims, including “no antibiotic residues,” on packages of Sprouts pork sold in California and Arizona, and “no antibiotic growth promotants” on Farmland brand pork sold in several states. We reported those to the USDA in June 2012, and the agency told us it’s working with those companies to take “appropriate actions.” When we checked in early November, Sprouts had removed the claim from its packages. (See our guide to food labels.)
  • If your local supermarket doesn’t carry pork from pigs raised without antibiotics, consider asking the store to carry it. To find meat from animals that were raised sustainably—humanely and without drugs—go to eatwellguide.org. To learn about the Consumers Union campaign aimed at getting stores to sell only antibiotic-free meat, go to NotinMyFood.org.

Germs by the Numbers

Levels of contamination in the U.S. is about 50 pounds per year, based on 2009 Department of Agriculture data.

We tested 148 samples of meat from pork chops and 50 from ground pork, and found that almost 70 percent tested positive for yersinia enterocolitica, which can infect people who eat raw or undercooked pork.

Enterococcus, staphylococcus aureus, salmonella, and listeria monocytogenes were less common in the samples we tested. Twenty-three percent of the samples harbored none of the tested bacteria.

The pork samples we analyzed came from many brands, but we lacked enough samples within each brand to say whether one was more or less contaminated than another.

Big brands we tested: Denmark, Farmer John, Farmer John California Natural, Farmland, Hempler’s, Hormel, Hormel Natural Choice, Nature’s Promise, Nature’s Rancher, Northwest Finest, Roseland, Smithfield, Swift Premium, and Tender Choice.

Store brands we tested: Angelo Caputo’s, Bashas’, Bristol Farms, Butera, Dominick’s, Edmar, El Toreo Market, Food 4 Less, Fred Meyer, Fresh & Easy, The Fresh Market, Giant, Meijer, PCC Natural Markets, Publix, Ralphs, Safeway, Save-a-Lot, Sprouts Farmers Market and Farmers Market Old Tyme, Ultra Foods, Viet Wah, Vons, Walmart, Wegmans, Weis, Whole Foods, and Winn Dixie.

Levels of contamination
BacteriumSamples Testing Positive
Yershinia enterocolitica69%
Enterococcus11
Staphylococcus aureus7
Salmonella4
Listeria monocytogenes3

How resistant to antibiotics?

Some antibiotics used to treat infections in people are also fed to pigs to speed their growth or prevent illness. But bacteria may evolve to become immune to antibiotics, at which point the drugs become less effective in treating people infected by those bugs. We tested whether samples of salmonella, staphylococcus aureus, enterococcus, and yersinia enterocolitica that we isolated from pork chops and ground pork could survive exposure to up to 13 antibiotics at levels that are usually effective against those bacteria. The antibiotics we used differed with each bug but included amoxicillin, penicillin, tetracycline, streptomycin, and others.

Bugs immune to drugs
BacteriumSamples testedSamples resistant to one or more antibioticsDetails
Yershinia enterocolitica132121Fifty-two of those were resistant to two or three antibiotics.
Enterococcus1413Nine of those were resistant to two to four antibiotics.
Staphylococcus aureus1912
Salmonella86Three of those were resistant to five antibiotics.

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