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Drug-Resistant Bacteria Found In American Pork Products, Alongside Internationally Banned Drug


Samples of pork from six cities have shown heavy contamination with five distinct bacterial strains and an often-banned controversial growth-enhancing drug, according to Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.

According to the report, out of 148 pork chop samples and 50 ground pork samples, 11 percent of the samples had contamination with Enterococcus. A shocking 69 percent of the samples were contaminated with Yersinia enterocolitica, while only 23 percet of samples were bacteria-free. Other bacteria found in the pork samples included staph variants, at 7 percent. Both Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella were also present in the samples, although the rate was less than 7 percent.

More problematically, the majority of the bacteria in the samples showed resistance to one or more classes of antibiotics. 121 of the 132 Yersinia samples, 13 out of the 14 staph variant samples, 6 out of the 8 Salmonella samples, and 12 out of the 19 Enteroccocus samples were all resistant to at least one antibiotic class.

Setting Apart Resistant Bacteria

The problem with resistant bacteria is that once it finds its way into the human body and causes infection, options for treatment become limited because the most effective methods—specific classes of antibiotics—are no longer effective. In addition to surviving rounds of antibiotics, resistant bacteria also survive antibacterial cleansing agents, which can make it difficult to prevent spread and infection. In this case, often the only available course of action is to provide supportive care, which can be ineffective in the case of dangerous, rapidly spreading infections that can result from staph, Listeria, and other bacteria. Resistant bacteria are more likely to cause death than non-resistant bacteria of the same kind and are more likely to lead to epidemics and outbreaks.

The bacteria found in the pork samples—varieties of Listeria, Salmonella, Enterococcus and Yersinia—all cause significant illness in humans. Listeria causes the food-borne illness listeriosis, which can cause serious vomiting, diarrhea, muscle pain, and fever. Without treatment, listeriosis can degenerate into meningitis, which is potentially fatal. Listeria is also more likely to affect pregnant women (and is most serious in them), potentially causing premature labor and fetal death.

Salmonella bacteria can cause typhoid fever, as well as the more commonly recognized food-borne illness. Severe illness resulting from Salmonella contamination can result in gastrointestinal symptoms that ultimately lead to dehydration and poor thermal regulation. In vulnerable populations, such as the very old or the very young, even a mild case of food-borne illness resulting from Salmonella contamination can be serious or fatal.

Enterococcus is a complicated bacterium that is physically similar to Streptococcus, producing a diverse number of symptomatic presentations that can range from minor urinary tract infections to severe meningitis. Other potential presentations of Enterococcus include bacteremia, or blood infection; endocarditis, or infection of the heart tissue; and diverticulitis, or infection of the large colon. Because Enterococcus-related infections are frequently treated with ampicillin, it is particularly dangerous and hard to treat when antibiotic-resistant.

Finally, Yersinia is a particularly problematic bacterial agent to find in food sources, as varieties of it are known to cause everything from the plague to yersiniosis. The variety Y. pestis causes the plague, the deadly disease that is still endemic in parts of Africa but is mostly unknown in the Western world. More commonly, Y. enterocolitica is found to cause yersiniosis, which leads to psuedoappendicitis, with symptoms including fever, severe right-sided abdominal pain, and bloody diarrhea. Even strains of Yersinia that are not antibiotic-resistant are problematic, as this bacterium is one of the few that can proliferate at normal refrigerator temperatures.

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Growth-Promoting Drug Also Present in Pork Samples

The report also shows that a separate examination of 240 pork samples showed evidence of the drug ractopamine, a controversial food additive that is legal in the United States, but illegal in many international markets, including the European Union, China, and Taiwan. Although the drug is not approved for human use, it is routinely given to livestock in their feed as a way to lessen fat production and increase the amount of saleable meat. In animals, the drug is known to induce stress reactions by mimicking hormones such as epinephrine, affecting the vascular and respiratory systems by dilating blood vessels and increasing the rate of respiration, among other effects. The lack of human studies on the effects of ractopamine in people makes it worrisome that the drug appears in meat sold for human consumption.

Ractopamine causes growth to increase in feed animals by binding to beta-receptors in the membranes of the muscle cells, where it stimulates protein synthesis. This extra production of muscle fiber causes feed animals to grow faster with less fat production and more muscle production, which translates into more usable meat after slaughter. 160 countries worldwide have banned the use of ractopamine in feed animals that will provide meat for human consumption, while 27 countries, including the United States, still allow feed-concentrated ractopamine to be administered to meat-producing animals. Countries such as the People’s Republic of China have seized shipments of pork from the United States, deeming them unfit for human consumption because of detectable amounts of ractopamine.

The report’s findings are unique in that Yersinia, one of the bacterium found in the first sample, is not a bacterium that receives regular attention in United States government-mandated testing. The bacterium, which causes acute diarrhea and other distress in the digestive tract, has not been commonly found in pork before, much less in a resistant form. Other bacteria found in the sample, while potentially dangerous, are recognized by regular testing to ensure safety in meat designated for human consumption, although their resistant forms are still difficult to control or treat. Additionally, the United States government does not test for or set standards for the levels of ractopamine in meat for human consumption, as its use is currently legal in the United States. These findings are unnerving at best, and may persuade more people to pursue organically grown pork as an alternative for health and safety reasons.

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