Consumer demand for leaner pork (nearly as lean as chicken) may have led to drug-enhanced pork.
I learned about this from a recent Consumer Reports study. The magazine, a source I highly trust for product evaluation and information, tested pork chops and ground pork for possible bacterial contamination.
The good news: 96 percent of all the pork they tested was free of Salmonella bacteria and 97 percent of it was free of Listeria bacteria. Yes, those levels could be better, but still that's a strong record. Those results are based on the testing of 240 pork products from stores -- Dominick's, Meijer, Whole Foods Market and Walmart included -- all over the country.
Not-so-good news: Researchers found a difficult-to-pronounce bacteria, yersinia enterocolitica, in more than 65 percent of all the tested pork. This bacteria was more prevalent in ground pork than in pork chops and could cause food poisoning, as all bacteria can, if not properly cooked.
If pork gets cooked properly (to 160 degrees for ground pork; 145 degrees for all other pork cuts) bacterial contamination can be a nonissue.
Yet, bacteria wasn't the only potential hazard the Consumer Reports study found. Twenty percent of the tested pork showed low but detectable levels of ractopamine (rack-toe-pa-mean), a feed additive that accelerates lean muscle growth in animals.
In the 1990s, when fats became evil foodstuffs, consumers demanded meats and other food products with less fat. At first, breeding made that a fairly successful goal. But breeding alone didn't make the animals quickly gain weight enough to keep up with demand. Enter ractopamine in 1999.
According to Andrew Gunther, program director for Animal Welfare Approved, "The European Union, China, Taiwan and more than 100 other countries have long banned (ractopamine's) use in livestock farming because of concerns about the effect of ractopamine residues in meat on human health. As a result, many countries will not import U.S. meat from animals that have been fed the drug."
If more than 100 countries are concerned enough about ractopamine to ban its use, shouldn't that raise a serious question about its U.S. use? Yet the FDA approved ractopamine for use in cattle in 2003 and turkeys in 2008.
In June 2012, Consumers Union, Consumer Reports' parent organization, launched Meat Without Drugs that has asked Trader Joe's to source only meat raised without antibiotics. I'd like to go further and ask consumers to express their concern for all drugs used on all animals raised for human consumption.
If you want to learn more, check out Consumers Union's other consumer action website, notinmyfood.org. What you learn might move you to action.
Try this recipe: Love fried chicken but don't want all the fat that usually comes along for the ride? Try my panko-crusted oven-fried chicken that uses a buttermilk marinade to flavor and tenderize the chicken and a light olive oil spray for an extra crisp exterior. Yum!
• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write him at email@example.com.