In testing and analysis of pork chop and ground pork samples from six U.S. cities, Consumer Reports found high rates of Yersinia enterocolitica, a bacterium that can cause food poisoning, especially in children. The majority of the Yersinia and a substantial portion of several other bacteria detected were resistant to medically important antibiotics.
A separate test for ractopamine, a drug used to promote growth and leanness in pigs, revealed the presence of this drug at very low levels in about 20 percent of the samples tested. Although approved for use in the United States, the drug is banned in China and Taiwan and in all of the European Union, due to safety concerns.
Consumer Reports’ findings
Consumer Reports tested 148 pork chops and 50 samples of ground pork from many major and store brands. 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 one or more of the antibiotics tested. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are concerning because infections caused by this type of bacteria can be harder to treat. The development of resistant bacteria is enhanced by the use of low doses of antibiotics, a practice common in pig production.
•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 the levels that were 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 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.
What consumers can do
Tips for safe preparation and handling include:
•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 145 degrees for whole pork and 160 degrees 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 prohibits the use of ractopamine and allows 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.
•Recognize that "no hormones added" claims are true, but hormones are not allowed in any pork production and ractopamine may still have been used.