Despite renewed attention over pathogens in pork, consumers can remain confident that the meat is safe to eat, according to a joint statement released recently by the American Meat Science Association board of directors and the American Society of Animal Science (ASAS) board of directors published online in ASAS’ Taking Stock.
Scientists emphasize that animal health and food safety measures have reduced foodborne pathogens, and food-related illness rates continue to decline.
A recent article from Consumer Reports shows that raw pork samples can contain a bacterium called Yersinia enterocolitica. Though this was a small study lacking scientific rigor, it does reveal the need for consumer education.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Y. enterocolitica is an infrequent cause of diarrhea and abdominal pain in humans. Only a few strains of Y. enterocolitica cause illness in humans, and most cases in humans do not require medical treatment. Pigs are the major animal reservoir for the Y. enterocolitica strains that cause human illness, but strains are also found in animals like rodents, dogs and cats.Y. enterocoliticacan also live naturally in the environment.
Rigorous food safety standards ensure that pork-related Y. enterocolitica cases remain rare. Food safety measures include clean animal housing, strict inspection protocols and sanitation steps in processing plants. Veterinary-guided animal health programs—including the judicious use of antibiotics—also keep pigs healthy.
Alex Ramirez, DVM, assistant professor in Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State University, says modern pig housing, health and management practices limit exposure to pathogens in dirt, water and manure.
Ramirez says inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) check every pig for signs of disease before processing. After processing, inspectors check each carcass for signs of contamination. Only meat from healthy animals is allowed to enter the food supply.
To kill pathogens, workers in pork processing plants regularly wash surfaces with hot water and pathogen-killing sprays. Harshavardhan Thippareddi, a professor in Food Microbiology and Extension Food Safety Specialist in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says the meat industry has improved sanitation methods in the last 15 years. Workers today are also more aware of pathogen risk.
These efforts make a difference. According to FoodNet, the monitoring system of the CDC, laboratory-confirmed incidence of Y. enterocolitica infections fell 52% between 1996 and 2010.
Like all bacteria,Y. enterocolitica can acquire resistance to antibiotics. Y. enterocolitica can also grow in refrigerated conditions. These factors mean consumers can avoid the potential for illness by storing, handling and preparing pork safely.
People should wash their hands with soap and hot water before and after preparing raw pork, and they should keep raw pork and raw pork juices away from other prepared foods. The USDA recommends that people heat pork cuts like pork chops, steaks and roasts to an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit with a three-minute rest period before consuming. Ground pork, organ meats and pork chitterlings should be heated to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
The appropriate cooking process will destroy Y. enterocolitica and other pathogenic bacteria if present.
Everyone has a role in keeping pork safe. These common-sense steps kill foodborne pathogens and prevent food-related illnesses in consumers.