Industry challenges Consumer Reports pork study

by Meat&Poultry Staff
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WASHINGTON – Pork industry stakeholders denounced an investigation by Consumer Reports, which claimed to have discovered high levels of harmful, antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Consumer Reports said its researchers tested and analyzed from pork chops and ground pork from six US cities and found high rates of yersinia enterocolitica, a bacterium that can cause food poisoning. The organization also claimed that the majority of the yersinia and a "substantial portion" of several other bacteria found in the samples were resistant to antibiotics.

“Consumers Union resorted to sensationalism because the ‘science’ it used wouldn’t stand up to even elementary scrutiny,” said R.C. Hunt, a pork producer from Wilson, NC, and president of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). “It’s another attempt by that advocacy group to push a social agenda that is not based on science and one that, if successful, would take choice away from consumers.”

Consumers Union is the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. Consumers Union has been a high-profile advocate of reducing antibiotic use in food animal production.

NPPC said the report was designed to scare consumers into buying only organic pork using “junk science” against pork from conventionally raised hogs.

NPPC and Dr. Scott Hurd, a scientist and former US Department of Agriculture deputy undersecretary for food safety, strongly criticized Consumers Union for attempting to link antibiotics use in food animals with antibiotic resistance in humans.

Criticisms of the Consumer Reports investigation by NPPC include:

• The low number of samples tested (198) does not provide a nationally informative estimate of the true prevalence of the cited bacteria on meat.

Yersinia enterocolitica found by Consumers Union on some pork has more than 50 serotypes and several biotypes, only a few of which are pathogenic and, thus, could cause illness. Consumers Union either did not conduct, or chose not to report the results of, tests to determine if the bacteria it found were pathogenic. Federal surveillance data show a greater than 50 percent decline in human Yersinia cases since 1996. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports a low number of US cases, so low, in fact, that USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service does not test pork for it.

• The few antibiotics the articles cited as being unable to treat some bacteria — because of resistance — are in classes that are not considered critically important to human health. Regardless, virtually every bacteria has some antibiotics to which it is resistant.

• Consumers Union cast aspersions on the FDA approval process for animal drugs by referring to European concerns over ractopamine, a feed supplement approved by FDA and the United Nations’ food-safety standards-setting body after in-depth scientific analysis. Additionally, ractopamine is not an antibiotic.

“This report was obviously written to support Consumers Union’s claim that antibiotics use in food animal production is the major cause of antibiotic resistance, or treatment failures, in human medicine,” Hunt said. “The article and Consumers Union disregarded numerous peer-reviewed risk assessments that show any risk to human health from antibiotics use in food animals is negligible.

“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.”

The National Pork Board, Des Moines, Iowa, also weighed in on the issue, asserting that the pork industry pork producers are committed to producing safe and wholesome products in a socially responsible way. For example:

• The federal government established the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS), a collaborative effort with CDC, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA in 1996 to track any resistant bacteria in humans, animals and retail meats. There are no patterns from this research that show resistant bacteria are routinely transferred from animals to humans.

• The US pork industry has strongly supported NARMS. Pork producers encourage strengthening the robustness of NARMS to provide additional valid and objective information about antibiotic resistance.

• The industry’s We Care initiative underscores the producers’ commitment to practices that protect human health, including managing the use of antibiotics. Additionally, the Pork Quality Assurance Plus certification program is designed to help producers achieve and maintain good production practices related to responsible antibiotic use and animal well-being. Currently, more than 55,000 producers have achieved PQA Plus certification, according to the NPB.

• Finally, antibiotics are administered to animals to protect their health and welfare, which helps ensure food safety and human health, the board stated.

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