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Harmful Bacteria Found in Samples of U.S. Pork

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 28, 2012 -- Many pork chops and ground pork products in the U.S. may be tainted with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including one that the USDA does not look for, a Consumer Reports study shows.  

The new report also found traces of a drug that is banned in several countries.

But trade groups representing the pork lobby say the new findings overstate the risks associated with tainted pork, and attest to its safety when prepared properly.

According to the study, 69% of pork chops and ground pork samples tested positive for Yersinia enterocolitica, a bug known to cause infections in about 100,000 Americans a year, especially kids. Other bacteria found in pork samples included enterococcus, staph, salmonella, and listeria. Twenty-three percent had none of the bacteria that was tested for. Some of the bacteria seen in the pork samples were resistant to antibiotics.

In addition, researchers found low levels of the drug ractopamine in about one-fifth of 240 additional pork products. This drug is used to promote lean muscle growth in pigs. It is approved for use in the U.S. and some other countries, but banned elsewhere due to safety concerns. Similar drugs may cause restlessness, anxiety, and a quickened heart rate.  

The report will appear in the January 2013 issue of Consumer Reports.

Alarming Findings

“We were a bit surprised by the yersinia,” says Jean Halloran. She is the director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports. “This is not a bacteria that USDA requires companies to test for, so it is not regarded as a problem with pork, but it is a significant cause of food-borne illness and this is a sufficiently serious problem.”

Contamination can happen easily in mere seconds. “If you were just a bit careless in the kitchen and drippings from a pork chop get on your lettuce in the refrigerator, or you forgot to wash the knife between cutting meat and salad greens, you could get sick and it would be harder to treat the infection because of its resistance to antibiotics.”

What’s more, “the safety data in support of the use of the drug ractopamine is not sufficient,” she says. “We need the USDA to act.”

Pork Under Scrutiny

Researchers tested 148 samples of meat from pork chops and 50 from ground pork for the presence of bacteria. The pork samples came from many major store brands. Some carried misleading and unapproved claims such as “no antibiotic growth promotants” and “no antibiotic residues.”

Ground Pork More Contaminated Than Pork Chops

Overall, ground pork was more likely than pork chops to harbor bugs. Similar findings could be expected in sources of raw pork, such as pork loin and pork cheeks, but not cured pork products such as bacon or ham, Halloran says.

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