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Harmful Bacteria Found in Samples of U.S. Pork

Ground Pork More Contaminated Than Pork Chops continued...

Philip M. Tierno Jr., PhD, says the new findings are worrisome. He is director of clinical microbiology at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City.

“When we test an individual with gastrointestinal symptoms, we look for salmonella and staphylococcus aureus and other pathogens, but we also routinely look for yersinia,” he says. The fact that the USDA doesn’t look for this bacteria in pork is of concern.

Antibiotic use in animals is one of the key drivers of antibiotic resistance, Tierno says. “In the U.S., we use antibiotics to prevent, not treat, infections in animals because of how the animals are raised in crowded conditions.”

Safe Pork Guidelines

What can people who eat pork do?

Lots, experts say.

  • Use separate cutting boards for meat and produce. "Throw the cutting board or knife in the sink after you use it,” Halloran says.
  • Choose antibiotic-free pork products, including those labeled “certified organic.” Also look for animal welfare labels such as Animal Welfare Approved or Certified Humane, which prohibit the use of ractopamine and allow antibiotics only for disease treatment, not prevention.
  • Disinfect all objects that come into contact with pork. "A little bleach in water is the cheapest and most effective killer of these germs,” Tierno says. “Combine a whiskey glass of bleach and half a quart of water to disinfect utensils and countertops."
  • Wash hands thoroughly after preparing raw meat.
  • Cook pork thoroughly. Use a meat thermometer when cooking pork to ensure it reaches at least 145 F for whole pork and 160 F for ground pork, Halloran says.

Donald W. Schaffner, PhD, says everyone can eat pork products safely as long as they take the proper precautions. He is a professor of food sciences at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “If you like it, you should keep eating it, just cook it thoroughly,” he says. “Not everyone can afford organic meats.”

Pork Industry Responds

Many in the pork industry dispute the findings.

In a written statement, R.C. Hunt, a pork producer from Wilson, N.C., and president of the National Pork Producers Council, says the amount of samples used in the study was way too small to draw any meaningful conclusions. He also says that the new report failed to break the yersinia down by subtypes, only a few of which cause illness in people.

As far as antibiotics in the livestock, “the simple fact is that pork producers like me use FDA-approved antibiotics very judiciously to keep our animals healthy and to produce safe pork for consumers,” he says.

The National Pork Board also takes issue: "Pork is safe. Only a few strains of yersiniacause illness in humans."

The group states that the antibiotic practices used are safe. “The FDA approves antibiotics for use in food animals, which may be used to treat illness and prevent disease, or allow pigs to grow better on less feed, resulting in less waste,” they say in a prepared statement. “Antibiotics used in pork production have many built-in safeguards throughout the food chain to provide safe food.”

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