Here we go again.

By warning consumers to “beware when you head for the meat market,” Consumer Reports has stirred up yet another controversy over the presence of microbial contaminants on pork samples the organization bought at supermarkets and tested in its lab.

Officials with Consumers Union, the policy arm and publisher of Consumer Reports, announced this week that 69 percent of 198 samples of whole and ground pork samples they tested were contaminated with Yersinia enterocolitica. The group noted that, “Yersinia is known to cause fever and gastrointestinal illness marked by diarrhea, vomiting and stomach cramps.

I’m guessing that doesn’t sound very appetizing to the average shopper.

The actual number of cases of infection by yersinia-triggered GI problems are difficult to properly quantify, however, since the people affected rarely suffer life-threatening problems or even symptoms distressing enough to require hospitalization. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are about an estimated 100,000 Yersinia enterocolitica cases a year in the United States although some public health authorities caution that for every Yersinia case diagnosed and documented, as many as 120 more aren’t reported or are attributed to stomach flu or general food poisoning.

“We were a bit surprised by the [presence of] yersinia,” Jean Halloran, Consumers Union director of Food Policy Initiatives, was quoted in Forbes magazine online. “This is not a bacteria that USDA requires companies to test for, so it is not regarded as a problem with pork, but it is a significant cause of food-borne illness and this is a sufficiently serious problem.”

Addressing the real issue

Allegations about (allegedly) lax regulatory oversight aside, what’s more serious—for industry as well as consumers—is that the study also discovered numerous samples of pork containing bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics. The Consumer Reports article stated that the sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics often added to pork feed mixtures might be “accelerating the growth of drug-resistant ‘superbugs’ that threaten human health.”

The National Pork Producers Council immediately challenged the report on the basis of methodology and sample size. Problem is, the group’s response simply didn’t muster the requisite clout to counter the unfortunately effective use of an emotional reaction to concerns about tainted meat that people would understandably harbor after reading the article.

Among NPPC’s criticisms were these talking points (with my response):

  • “The low number of samples tested (198) does not provide a nationally informative estimate of the true prevalence of the cited bacteria on meat.” Sorry, but this approach has zero traction with the non-scientifically savvy public, nor does criticizing the sample size refute the suspicions of most people that more samples would simply have resulted in more yersinia positives.
  • Yersinia enterocolitica has more than 50 serotypes and several biotypes, only a few of which are pathogenic. Consumers Union did not . . . determine if the bacteria it found were pathogenic.” You lost me at “serotypes.” This is a classic case of fighting the emotional fear of getting sick from eating contaminated meat with scientific data most people simply can’t grasp.
  • “The few antibiotics the article cited as being unable to treat some bacteria because of resistance are in classes not considered critically important to human health.” Tell that to somebody’s grandmother who just succumbed to an antibiotic-resistant “super bug.” Pretending that antibiotic resistance is only a minor problem we shouldn’t worry about does not address the public’s legitimate concerns.

The bottom line is all debates about the use of animal antibiotics is industry’s responsibility to make a clear, compelling case for using these drugs in a way most people automatically deem inappropriate. For the typical consumer—meaning most of us—antibiotics are something your doctor prescribes when you’re really sick, not something you dump into pig feed to fatten up the animals in less time than is “normal.”

At least that’s what the majority of people think, and if you doubt me, just ask them. Next time you’re sitting around the airport or at the ball game, strike up a conversation with whoever you’re with about animal antibiotics. With rare exceptions, that person will at some point ask the relevant question: Why do they need to use them?

When producers can answer that question in 20 seconds or less—and in a way that doesn’t fall back on an economic argument—they’ll have taken the first step toward defusing this controversy.

But the answer better not require a college degree in biochemistry to understand its relevance.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.