Friday, November 30, 2012

Responses to Consumer Reports' "What's in that pork?"

Recently, Consumer Reports released an article on the concerns of bacteria and FDA approved medicines in pork production. For a detailed response, see the blog article entitled "Consumer Reports Distorts Science to Create Anxiety."

Dr. Hurd also responded to the claims in the Consumer Reports article on CBS and on Rural Route Radio.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Consumer Reports Distorts Science to Create Anxiety

During this Thanksgiving weekend we had the joys of having my sisters and their children, along with my flock, for many great feasts. Those joys included feeding and washing dishes for 16 people. After so much washing, it is time to think about getting a new dishwasher. Normally, I would turn to Consumer Reports for advice on the best purchase--but no more. After their most recent article about pork safety, “What’s in that pork?”, I have lost confidence in their ability to provide unbiased, scientific information.

This article violated at least three principles of good scientific reporting. It pushed the data too far, as the number of items (n=198) was not nearly large enough (n> 1,000) to make any strong conclusions. It did not provide enough information to repeat the study, as nothing was said about how the samples were collected, where the sample were collected, who did the lab testing, or what lab methods were used. They also did not compare their results to other published studies. Given the above infractions, we can be confident the results are just about useless.

Although the results are weak and relatively meaningless, the title, headings and tone of the article serve to frighten readers and create anxiety. Contrary to the article’s tone and title, the report does not reveal anything alarming about pork safety. Yersinia enterocolitica is fairly common in pigs and pork , but infection in people is “relatively infrequent,” infects only 1 in 100,000 people, and many cases “resolve on their own without antibiotic treatment.” Low levels of Salmonella and Listeria just remind us that all raw meats need to be handled with care and cooked to appropriate temperatures, a process which kills most bacteria that cause human illness.

Ractopamine is interesting as it is neither a steroid, a hormone, nor a GMO (genetically modified organism). In fact, some of my children take a related compound for occasionally asthma attacks. After extensive testing, it has been approved in 27 countries worldwide. Countries that have not approved it are mostly implementing trade barriers. Thankfully, the Consumer Reports article was objective enough to report that levels they found, 5 part per billion (ppb) were “levels that meet FDA and international food-safety standards.” Think about this if the levels were at the FDA maximum of 50 ppb, the average adult would need to consume over 700 pounds of pork in one day to approach the level of observed effect. I love pork, but not that much!

Lastly, the front page inset mentions that Trichinella levels have gone down due to “changes in industry practices (legislation banned the feeding of certain raw foods to hogs) and public awareness of the risks of eating under cooked meat.” This article fails to mention that these “changes in industry practices” were primarily moves toward modern indoor housing where pigs are away from their manure off the dirt and separate from each other, two practices that are often criticized in pork production. These are also practices I encourage in my children.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Our Growing Dependence on Uninspected Foreign Food

A blog posting by Dr. Richard Raymond, former Undersecretary for Food Safety, and an article published in Food Safety News today both highlighted data indicating that the USDA has significantly decreased inspection of foreign meat producing plants registered to import into the US (1, 2). Over the last 4 years, inspection of meat and poultry producers in countries that supply products to the US has decreased by 60%. USDA/FSIS has dropped from investigating 32 countries in 2005 to just 3 in 2011. So far this year, USDA/FSIS has inspected 11 but would not comment on further investigations for the rest of 2012 (2).

Generally, I have great confidence in our US food supply. However, when it comes to imported meat, I am not so comfortable. Unless we are talking about Northern Europe, it is hard for me to believe that it has nearly the same inspection requirements and quality control protocols as domestically produced meat. Of course, most of the potential hazards of meat can be handled with cooking, regardless of the source of the meat.

What is worrisome is that US consumer groups, animal welfare groups, and environmental groups are making it harder and harder to produce US meat. As that happens, we will be forced to import more. For example, it is estimated that buyers’ refusal to accept Lean Finely Textured Beef (AKA “Pink Slime”) resulted in the need to import 1 MILLION more beef cattle per year in order to meet the gap in supply left when that beef was not entering the human food supply. The food items that had included the Lean Finely Textured Beef still needed to be produced, and the US system simply could not increase production quickly enough to add in this additional lean beef. As a result, the foreign beef, which we have now discovered may not even have been inspected, had to be imported and substituted into the items that needed it. This is a far cry from "local production" or "know your farmer, know your food," unless you speak Portuguese, as they do in Brazil.

In Denmark they have virtually eliminated poultry production due to severe restrictions on antibiotic use. They simply were not able to financially produce the poultry themselves with all of the restrictions, so now they import most of it. Much of their poultry meat now comes from Eastern Europe, a region that was communist only 23 years ago. Danish human campylobacteriosis (a bacterial infection caused by the bacteria Campylobacter) rates have increased 20% from 60 cases per 100,000 people in 2006 to 73.1 cases per 100,000 people in 2011 (3, 4). According to Danish reports on this data, “Consumption and handling of broiler meat is assumed to be the major source of human campylobacteriosis” (2). In addition, 30% of young pigs in Denmark are now exported to be fattened in other countries then imported back into Denmark. Because of all of the new restrictions, the Danes are losing control of their meat supply.

Agriculture remains one bright spot in US trade. Recently, we have had a agricultural trade surpluses in this area (5). However, we may not maintain that surplus if farmers are forced to use production methods from the 1950’s or if they have to treat farm animals like house pets. I am not saying that we do not need to respect the animals – no one respects animals more than farmers. As a civil society, we must consider the consequences of every regulation, law, or consumer demand, not based just on our personal preference, but also on our ability to feed our friends and neighbors. Hungry neighbors are not peaceable. People gotta eat, so if producers cannot work here they will go elsewhere to produce and then import inferior products.

Overall, this change in food inspection protocol abroad raises a potential real food safety and security risk. At the rate we are going, more and more meat is being imported due to the relentless restrictions on the food animal industry in the US. The primary risk here is that we will become too dependent on imported products not be able to feed ourselves. Currently, 17% of our food supply is imported (1), and this number is rising. We are already dependent on foreign oil and consumer goods - are we going let someone else feed us too?

1. Raymond, R. (2012, November 1). “FSIS International Equivalency Audits, a budget victim?”

2. Bottemiller, H. (2012, November 1). “Investigation: USDA Quietly Eliminated 60 Percent of Foreign Meat Inspections.”

3. DANMAP 2005

4. DANMAP 2011.

5. Maday, J. (2012, January 18). “US Sees ag-trade surplus in 2011.”

Food is Not Free or Easy

This week’s storm and its potential impact on farms and processors along with the already increasing price of beef and predicted price increases for pork (1, 2) remind us that meat “does not grow on trees,” as my mother used to say about anything I was wasting. The production of food takes effort and resources such as fuel, rain, farmers and processors, to name a few. Stresses to the food system can have a major impact on the price and availability of items we take for granted or easily disparage. Although most of us are currently overfed, that could change.

These stresses to the supply system should remind us that food is something for which we must work. Everyone deserves to eat affordably. Modern production methods help keep food affordable, sustainable and accessible. Many others are not so fortunate. For instance, I was told by a poultry consultant in East Asia that some poultry farms in those countries throw the dead birds over the fence. These birds never go to waste, as people come quickly to collect them for consumption. In one African country, where Iowa State is helping develop a pork industry, the country's king reported that the population starts bush fires to burn the bush meat out the wild, to feed their families.

Food security and having a food supply robust enough for all is not just a concern for the “third world.” This week, as folks work to recover from Sandy, they will go to their local grocer. The shelves may be a little bare, but there will still be food, thanks to the system we have built in this country. Some meat producers even stepped up production in anticipation of hurricane Sandy (3). Also, thanks to the efficiency and larger size of the facilities, they weathered the storm well and had minimal if not no damage. Producers are resuming production as usual and are planning to make deliveries to affected areas in the Northeast as soon as logistically possible (4). Too many disparage the modern system, suggesting we should go back to the “good ole days.” In the “good ole days,” a storm like Sandy would likely leave most people in the East Coast hungry for the period immediately following. Recent events emphasize the need to strive for high quality and efficient production, from farm to fork. So for example, the next time you reject a hamburger because it contain low-fat, high-protein beef (AKA “pink slime”), consider how lucky you are to have the luxury to choose.

1 Maday, J. (2012, October 31). “Beef again leads to food-prive inflation.” 2 Waters, T. (2012, October 22). “Record high US pork stocks signal trouble for consumers in 2013.”
3 Gabbett, R.J., (2012, October 29). “Poultry and meat processors batten down for Sandy.”
4 Gabbett, R.J. (2012, October 30). “The day after: processors came through Hurrican Sandy safely.”