What Exactly Is Yersinia—and Why Is It Lurking in Your Pork Chops?


For a foodborne pathogen, it may not be as infamous as salmonella, listeria or E. coli, but Yersinia enterocolitica carries a host of symptoms that will make you mighty uncomfortable: fever, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. In some patients, it even mimics the symptoms of appendicitis. And it’s more common than you might suspect. The CDC estimates that 100,000 Americans are infected by Yersinia each year—most of them children.

A Consumer Reports study out today points the finger at pork.

Yersinia was detected in nearly 70 percent of the pork samples tested by the group. In all, 148 samples of meat from pork chops and 50 samples of ground pork were taken from brands like Hormel, Farmland, Smithfield, Swift Premium; and from store brands that included Bristol Farms, Fresh & Easy, Meijer, Ralphs, Wegmans, Walmart, Whole Foods and more.

MORE: 8 Essential Tips for Protecting Against Foodborne Illness

Unfortunately for consumers, Yersinia (though most abundant) wasn’t the only pathogen present. Consumer Reports found positive samples of enterococcus (11 percent), staphylococcus aureus (7 percent), salmonella (4 percent) and listeria monocytogenes (3 percent). Only 23 percent of the samples tested contained none of the tested bacteria.

“Yersinia is common to pork, and yet, it’s not something that our government requires pork producers to test,” Urvashi Rangan, PhD., the director of the Consumer Safety Group at Consumer Reports, tells TakePart. “We’re asking that the USDA include Yersinia as part of the requirements for HACCP.”

(HACCP stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points and is part of the safety inspection procedures conducted by processors.)

The new report isn’t only shining a spotlight on Yersinia. It’s continuing the public dialogue over widespread antibiotic use in livestock production.

“The frequent use of low-dose antibiotics in pork farming may be accelerating the growth of drug-resistant ‘superbugs’ that threaten human health,” says the report.

That caught the attention of Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY).

“Today’s findings are simply terrifying,” said Slaugter in a statement. “It’s getting harder and harder for the food processing industry and the FDA to ignore the fact that overuse of antibiotics in animals is threatening public health.”

Indeed, 13 of the 14 staphylococcus samples Consumer Reports isolated from pork were resistant to one or more antibiotics. So were six of the eight salmonella samples; 12 of 19 enterococcus samples, and 121 of the 132 Yersinia samples.

So what’s an eater to do?

“Wash your hands every time you prepare meat,” says Rangan. “A lot of people who get sick from Yersinia are children age one and under who aren’t eating pork. It’s a cross-contamination issue. Any implements you use should go right in the dishwasher or hot soapy water; and cook pork all the way through.”

She also recommends looking for meaningful labeling.

Certified organic pork means the pigs have been raised without antibiotics. “No antibiotics used” claims with a USDA Process Verified shield are more reliable than those without verification. “Animal Welfare Approved” and “Certified Humane” is also a good sign of prudent antibiotic use. But be on the lookout for misleading labels.

“Natural gets your nowhere. No hormones added is truthful, but not meaningful in that all pork (and poultry) production is prohibited from hormones being used,” says Rangan.

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Clare Leschin-Hoar covers seafood, sustainability and food politics. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, The Wall Street Journal, Grist, Eating Well and many more. @c_leschin | TakePart.com