Show Me the Research

The December issue of National Hog Farmer magazine should be arriving in your mailbox or e-mail Inbox within the next few days. Each year, this issue focuses on current research findings specific to the pork industry. Research topics range from swine health, housing and nutrient management, to swine feeding and meat quality. National Hog Farmer has a long-standing reputation for providing research-based information to its readers. I’m a pretty big believer in making decisions based on sound science, with conclusions drawn on the basis of research that has been replicated, published and endorsed by reputable scientists. Because of this, I’m still somewhat taken aback by the current uproar that is being promoted by Consumer Reports magazine’s advocacy division, Consumers Union, as part of an apparent campaign targeting pork producers. Consumers Union issued a press release yesterday, calling for more government regulations for the pork industry. Even though the group is basing their talking points on a Consumer Reports’ study that cites ractopamine levels well-below those that current research has shown to be safe, and claims about bacteria in retail pork products that appear to be taken out of context, the outcry continues.

The December issue of National Hog Farmer magazine should be arriving in your mailbox or e-mail Inbox within the next few days. Each year, this issue focuses on current research findings specific  to the pork industry. Research topics range from swine health, housing and nutrient management, to swine feeding and meat quality. National Hog Farmer has a long-standing reputation for providing research-based information to its readers. I’m a pretty big believer in making decisions based on sound science, with conclusions drawn on the basis of research that has been replicated, published and endorsed by reputable scientists. Because of this, I’m still somewhat taken aback by the current uproar that is being promoted by Consumer Reports magazine’s advocacy division, Consumers Union, as part of an apparent campaign targeting pork producers. Consumers Union issued a press release yesterday, calling for more government regulations for the pork industry. Even though the group is basing their talking points on a Consumer Reports’ study that cites ractopamine levels well-below those that current research has shown to be safe, and claims about bacteria in retail pork products that appear to be taken out of context, the outcry continues.

Food safety is very important and should be taken extremely seriously. I believe we have a safe food supply. I’m encouraged by the fact that many people are diligently working to continue to improve food safety for U.S. consumers, too. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved rules that increase the maximum allowable dosage of irradiation in meat and poultry products to reduce levels of foodborne pathogens and extend shelf life, for example.

A January 2013 Consumer Reports article, entitled, “What’s in that Pork?” claims antibiotic-resistant bacteria and traces of ractopamine were found during an analysis of pork chop and ground-pork samples from around the United States. The National Pork Board responded suggesting that the article is actually providing a disservice to American consumers who deserve better in the national conversation about food. Chris Novak, chief executive officer of the National Pork Board, says, “We believe Consumer Reports has not accurately portrayed the safety and quality of pork products.”

Remember, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and international food safety standards rely upon research to set food safety standards. The Consumer Reports article actually states, “Indeed, although we found the drug at detectable levels in about 20% of our 240 pork samples, all had less than 5 parts per billion (ppb). That’s well below the FDA’s limit of 50 ppb in muscle tissue and the international limit of 10 ppb adopted in July 2012 by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a program of the United Nations.”

In addition to citing concerns about ractopamine, Consumers Union is now calling for more research regarding the bacteria Yersinia enterocolitica. Okay, this sounds good on the surface, but again,  in the same press release, conclusions were drawn and parallels are made that don’t seem to be supported by current research results.  And you don’t have to take my word for that either . Scott Hurd, DVM, former U.S. Department of Agriculture deputy undersecretary for food safety, strongly criticized Consumers Union for attempting to link antibiotics used in food animals with antibiotic resistance in humans, and for ignoring more than 15 years of data from federal public health agencies, showing significant reductions in bacteria on meat. 

Hurd makes some  good points. He says the low number of samples tested by Consumer Reports (198) does not provide a nationally informative estimate of the true prevalence of the cited bacteria on meat. He also states that Yersinia enterocolitica found by the Consumer Reports study 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% decline in human Yersinia cases since 1996. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports a low number of U.S. cases, so low, in fact, that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service does not test pork for it,” Hurd says. He also notes that the few antibiotics the article 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,” he concludes.

Again, I need to re-iterate that food safety is very important and should be taken seriously. If there are findings, based on real data, bringing into question the quality of our food supply, as suppliers pork producers need to be diligent in addressing any issues and keeping the food supply safe.

Over the course of the last two weeks, I’ve written blog posts urging our pork producer readers to listen to what is being said, and take note about how the pork industry is impacted when information is delivered in a targeted way to support a particular agenda and incite fear.  Take a look at some of the comments posted in response to the blog entry entitled, “Fear-Mongers Take Aim at Ractopamine.” There are some folks out there who are more than willing to believe the worst possible information about their food. It is important to keep consumers both informed and safe. As a pork producer, you need to hear what they are saying. But you also need to think about how you want your industry to respond. I’m going to continue to point to credible sources of research-based information, myself. What about you? Post a comment in the “Comments” section here, or email lora.berg@penton.com.

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