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Your pork may be contaminated: 7 ways to reduce foodborne illness risk

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
pork, contamination, bacteria, salmonella, antibiotic resistant, ractopamine

According to an analysis by Consumers Reports, samples of US pork chops and ground pork have been found to contain significant amounts of harmful and antibiotic-resistant bacteria as well as small amounts of a growth hormone used to promote growth in pigs. The report appears in the January 2013 edition of Consumer Reports Magazine and is available online.

The report notes that from 3-7% of the pork samples tested contained dangerous bacteria, including Salmonella sp., Staphylococcus aureus, and Listeria monocytogenes. These organisms can all cause food poisoning. Furthermore, the evaluation revealed that Yersinia enterocolitica was present in 69% of the samples. The bacterium can cause fever, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. In 198 samples, some of the bacteria were found to be antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which Consumer Reports proposed may be a result of the pork farming industry’s common use of low-dose antibiotics to promote weight gain. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) are currently a major healthcare concern because they cannot be treated by conventional antibiotics.

Another disturbing finding of the report was that about 20% of the pork products tested also contained low levels of the drug ractopamine, which is often used in pigs raised for food to accelerate their growth and leanness. The drug is approved in the United States; however, it is banned in the European Union, China and Taiwan.

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Ground pork was more likely than pork chops to harbor harmful bacteria. That finding was expected because grinding meat provides another opportunity for contamination. An animal’s muscles (meat), blood, and brain are normally sterile. However, during slaughter and processing, meat can become contaminated with bacteria from the animal’s skin or intestinal tract and from workers, equipment, or the environment. Contamination is especially likely to occur if processing lines run too fast or if sanitary practices are not followed. Once bacteria are on meat, improper storage can encourage them to multiply.

Approximately 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to animals raised for food. These drugs are not usually given to treat infections; rather, they are fed continuously in low doses to promote growth and prevent infections that can spread in the cramped quarters in which most farm animals live. A single barn from a large hog production facility can hold 2,000 or more pigs, creating ideal conditions for the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Consumers Reports offers preventive measures that can reduce the risk of foodborne illness or discourage the routine use of antibiotics in agriculture:

  • When cooking pork, use a meat thermometer to ensure that it reaches the proper internal temperature, which kills potentially harmful bacteria: at least 145° F for whole pork and 160° F for ground pork. (See our buying guide to meat thermometers.)
  • As with other meats, keep raw pork and its juices separate from other foods, especially those eaten raw, such as salad.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw meat.
  • Choose pork and other meat products that were raised without drugs. One way to do that is to buy certified organic pork, from pigs raised without antibiotics or ractopamine. Another option is to buy from Whole Foods, which requires that producers not use either type of drug.
  • Look for a clear statement regarding antibiotic use. “No antibiotics used” claims with a USDA Process Verified shield are more reliable than those without verification. Labels such as “Animal Welfare Approved” and “Certified Humane” indicate the prudent use of antibiotics to treat illness.
  • Watch out for misleading labels. “Natural” has nothing to do with antibiotic use or how an animal was raised. Consumers Reports found unapproved claims, including “no antibiotic residues,” on packages of Sprouts pork sold in California and Arizona, and “no antibiotic growth promotants” on Farmland brand pork sold in several states. They reported those to the USDA in June 2012, and the agency responded that it is working with those companies to take “appropriate actions.” When Consumers Reports followed up in early November, Sprouts had removed the claim from its packages. (See our guide to food labels.)
  • If your local supermarket does not carry pork from pigs raised without antibiotics, consider asking the store to carry it. To find meat from animals that were raised sustainably (humanely and without drugs), click on this link.

Reference: Consumer Reports

See also:
Which organic foods are worth the higher price?
US boys now attaining puberty earlier
Salmonella bacteria outbreak still plaguing organic peanut plant
Mercury exposure during pregnancy and ADHD risk in offspring
Chemical BPA in food linked to childhood obesity



I am so glad to be a vegetarian! I would not touch animal remains if it came with ten dollar note attached, nor use them as surrogate mothers, like the cow, until she gets too old and then eat her remains. The bible prohibited eating pork more than 3000 years ago! Now there is wisdom for you. Very good article, Robin