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.


  1. Unfortunately the headlines today are filled with study findings that have questionable statistical methods as you have pointed out here.

    In an age where we are conditioned get our information in quick bits many appear to not have interest in the sources of the information spoon-fed to them. It is a sad commentary on the general public; and is contributing to the "dumbing down" of America.

    Thanks for your analysis of this study from a "reputable" publication.

  2. I was looking this kind of post from long about food-safety.. Thanks for sharing.

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