An Antibiotic-Resistant Superbug Has Been Found In UK Pork Products

World Animal Protection commissioned research into the pork problem


3 Minutes Read

Roasted shoulder of pork on a cutting board Some roasting joints were confirmed to contain the bacteria - Media Credit: Adobe Stock

Scientists have discovered a superbug in some British supermarket pork that is antibiotic-resistant and potentially lethal.

Identified in more than 10 percent of pork sampled is a variant of the enterococci bacteria strain. It causes urinary tract and wound infections. In serious cases, it can infect the heart, brain, and bloodstream of individuals.

Confirmed to contain the bacteria are pork chops, roasting joints, and mince. Further analysis proved the bug has resistance to “last resort” antibiotic treatments.

Red Tractor-assured, RSPCA-assured, and organic pork products were all included in the testing processes.

Gauging the scale of the pork superbug problem

World Animal Protection commissioned Fera Science to investigate the scale of the pork problem.

Researchers purchased 103 pork products, all from unnamed Yorkshire supermarkets and online retailers. Some 22 carried the Red Tractor label, 27 were organic or RSPCA-assured, and 27 had no specific markings. The latter did not come from British farms.

Analysis revealed 25 products to be infected with the bacteria. Of these, 23 showed resistance to antibiotic treatment.

“The UK government needs to end the routine use of antibiotics on farm animals, as the EU has recently done,” Lindsay Duncan, farming campaigns manager at World Animal Protection told The Guardian. “And to acknowledge that a reduction in animal product consumption is needed to address the countless issues caused by factory farming.”

What is creating treatment-resistant superbugs?

A major concern is the continued use of antibiotics in intensive factory farming. Livestock facilities are breeding grounds for diseases. Animals housed in close quarters can quickly spread infections that are transmissible to humans. Farmers use antibiotics to keep animals alive and healthy long enough to reach slaughterhouses. 

The practice is common but not accepted by all. Concerned parties urged the UK government to ban antibiotics in meat as it sought new trading partnerships in 2020. In the same year, the US saw its beef industry rocked by accusations of antibiotic overuse.

Following increased global attention on the issue, the EU banned the routine use of antibiotics in animal rearing in January. Following investigations into the increased likelihood of medication resistance and implications for human health, the move prompted deeper scrutiny of non-compliant regions. 

How serious is antibiotic resistance?

A 2016 UK Government analysis of treatment resistance claimed that superbugs kill more than 700,000 people each year. This number could rise to 10 million by 2050 without intervention.

Particularly concerning is the increasing frequency of meat infection. One in 100 pork and poultry products contained enterococci bacteria in 2018. Now, the recent tests show the infection rate as 13 in 103 samples. The discovery of the superbug in organic meat, traditionally produced using fewer antibiotics, adds to experts’ concern.

“Lower levels of antibiotic resistance in the organic produce can be explained by the very strong restrictions on antibiotic use in organic farming,” Gareth Morgan, head of farming policy at the Soil Association explained. 

The government claims to be looking to reduce antibiotic reliance across all farms, not just those certified as organic.

Subsequently, The Veterinary Medicines Directorate said: “We are committed to reducing unnecessary use of antibiotics in animals. It remains our intention to strengthen our national law in this area.”

How can consumers protect themselves against the pork superbug?

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) states that cooking meat properly will reduce the bacteria contained within it, if not kill most of it. 

Other proactive measures include storing pork separately in the fridge and diligent kitchen hygiene.

Alternatively, there are a growing number of plant-based pork products on the market. A number of brands offer vegan sausages, bacon, and mince, for example.

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