Before grabbing that package of pork chops on your next shopping trip, take a moment to consider this: It almost surely contains potentially harmful bacteria, and chances are good that if those tiny microbes manage to make you sick, it will take some powerful drugs to make you better.
The study, published in the January issue of Consumer Reports, found that of 148 pork chop and 50 ground pork samples bought at various retailers in six cities, three quarters tested positive for bacteria which can cause foodborne illness. A whopping 69 percent contained Yersinia enterocolitica, which sickens 100,000 Americans per year, while 3 to 7 percent contained salmonella, staphylococcus, listeria, or others. Those figures alone are enough to churn the stomach of anyone who has ever bitten into a slightly undercooked pork chop or dribbled sausage juice on their counter. (As the pork industry is quick to note, proper cooking and hygiene will go a long way in killing bacteria even if it does wind up in your raw meat).
But what is more troubling is the fact that nearly all strains were resistant to antibiotics, with some surviving more than five. If those bugs were to make their way into circulation in people , the public health impacts could be chilling, as doctors would be forced to reach for higher-powered more expensive drugs, says Michael Crupain, MD, director of Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center.
“Each year fewer and fewer antibiotics are being approved so it is very important that we protect the ones we have,” Crupain told me during a recent interview.
Unfortunately, we aren’t doing such a good job at that.
Studies show 80 percent of antibiotics are used on farm animals, with most used on healthy animals to promote growth or prevent diseases spread in overcrowded commercial farms. Feed low doses of an antibiotic to a healthy animal long enough and a few stubborn microbes are bound to survive, breed, and come back stronger, occasionally migrating to people via farm run-off, farm workers, or undercooked meat. (In 2011 ground turkey was linked to 135 illnesses and one death caused by a strain of Salmonella resistant to four antibiotics.)
In human medicine, we came to the realization long ago that antibiotics need to be used more prudently. That’s why when I bring my miserable 10-year-old to the pediatrician and beg for antibiotics to make her feel better, I know she will get them only if she really needs them.
Isn’t it time for us to apply the same restraint with our farm animals?
Consumer’s Union thinks so, and has launched a Meat Without Drugs Campaign calling on retailers to carry only meat raised without the use of antibiotics. Whole Foods made the pledge long ago, as did Boulder-based Alfalfa’s. But curiously, the seemingly progressive Trader Joe’s – which will open two new stores in Colorado this year – carries no antibiotic-free pork and plenty of antibiotic-raised chicken and beef.
For that reason, shoppers at Trader Joe’s around the country are now being greeted by a fuzzy pink pig named Joe, pleading “Get me off drugs.” (CU has also gathered 557,000 signatures calling on the retailer to do the same.) Thus far, Trader Joe’s isn’t budging.
“We understand the importance of our customers’ decisions when it comes to their grocery shopping and do not presume to make choices for them,” said Trader Joe’s spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki, in a prepared statement.
Understood. But until it begins to address the crisis of antibiotic-resistance head-on, this customer will choose to shop elsewhere.
Lisa Marshall is a freelance health and medical science writer who lives in Lyons, Colorado. Connect at www.lisaannmarshall.com.