To determine if pork is safer raised with or without antibiotics, university researchers are tracking the frequency of three common swine pathogens from birth to slaughter.

Food-borne illness is the leading cause of sickness in the U.S., and food-borne illness from antibiotic-resistant bacteria can potentially cause treatment-resistant illnesses in humans.

However, the link between antibiotics in swine feed, food-borne pathogens and antibiotic-resistant organisms in pork has not been proven.

To find the answers, the research team will compare pigs fed antibiotics to those on antibiotic-free diets.

“We know that several food-borne pathogens are common in conventionally reared pigs,” says Peter Bahnson, University of Wisconsin. “But we still don’t have the solid science to understand the comparable risks involved in antibiotic-free production.”

“In the context of this project, by conventionally reared we mean pigs that were exposed to therapeutic and non-therapeutic levels of antibiotics,” adds project director Wondwossen Gebreyes at North Carolina State University (NCSU).

Bahnson will focus on the presence of salmonella bacteria in pork. Gebreyes will look for levels of campylobacter bacteria. Julie Funk of Ohio State University will test for yersinina bacteria.

Gebreyes will perform DNA fingerprinting to evaluate similarities and differences of the three bacteria isolated from different production systems and geographical locations.

NCSU’s Morgan Morrow is responsible for releasing the research findings to producers and consumers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service has provided over $500,000 in funding for the study through its National Integrated Food Safety program.

“This research will give consumers knowledge of whether pork produced under different labels (organic, antibiotic-free, etc.) yields any actual differences in food safety risks,” says Funk.