Consumer Reports sounds alarm on pork safety

AP Graphics Bank

(CBS News) Consumer Reports is sounding the alarm over the safety of pork. A new study shows that chops and ground pork may be full of bad bacteria. A whole host of food-borne illnesses is caused by these bacteria, such as stomach aches, vomiting, diarrhea, fever -- and in the most extreme cases, even death.

But Consumer Reports, an independent, nonprofit organization that provides ratings and product comparisons, says bacteria are not the only thing pork eaters should be concerned about.

Read the Consumer Reports findings.

For years, pork has been promoted by the industry as healthy food option -- "the other white meat." But the new report suggests otherwise.

Urvashi Rangan, Consumer Reports director of consumer safety and sustainability, said, "We found potentially harmful bacteria on most of the samples of pork that we tested. One organism we looked at, enterococcus, is more a measure of filth indication, maybe fecal contamination."

Of nearly 200 pork samples tested by Consumer Reports, many tested positive for salmonella, listeria, staph bacteria. The magazine says a whopping 69 percent contained yersinia, which infects nearly 100,000 Americans every year. Children are especially vulnerable.

Stephen Morse, of the Columbia University School of Public Health, said, "You always expect to find some bacteria in any meat product. But those are usually harmless. I think the real surprise here was to find so many potentially disease-causing bacteria."

Even more, 90 percent of the bacteria Consumer Reports found were said to be resistant to antibiotics. In other words, they were super-bugs.

Rangan said, "All of these things paint a very concerning picture about this indiscriminate use of antibiotics in meat production in this country, and what we believe are the resulting consequences of that."

Consumer Reports was also alarmed by traces of ractopamine in one-fifth of pork they tested. Farmers use the drug on their hogs to produce leaner cuts of meat. It was originally developed to treat asthma, but never approved for human use.

Scott Hurd, a former top food safety official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who has done consulting work for the pork industry, says Consumer Reports is "inflamed and used a small amount of data to frighten people." And he says the meat is safe.

Hurd, of the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, said, "The average person would have to eat over 700 pounds of pork every day for their entire life in order to get enough ractopamine to be above that acceptable level by FDA."

Hurd says the sample size of the Consumer Reports study is too small to draw any broader conclusions. But he adds that germs can be found in nearly everything we eat, so consumers should always be careful when handling meat. That means cooking meat thoroughly and washing your hands.

For Jim Axelrod's full report, watch the video in the player above.