A recent report by the "60 Minutes" television news magazine left out important information, representatives of the pork industry say.
The CBS show alleged the use of antibiotics on livestock operations is driving the spread of drug-resistant bacteria in animals that can also be passed on to humans through food.
It also alleged a lack of oversight on hog farms and a loosening of inspections at slaughter facilities.
National Pork Producers Council — whose chief veterinarian, Liz Wagstrom, was included in the broadcast — put out a press release addressing the newscast and what consumers should know about U.S. pork.
According to NPPC, the 13-minute segment included only a fraction of Wagstrom’s comments and failed to include key information about modern pork production.
“It was misleading,” Jim Monroe, NPPC assistant vice president of communications, told Capital Press.
“Our chief veterinarian spent 80 minutes educating '60 Minutes.' Less than two minutes of her comments were used,” he said.
Monroe said U.S. pork has an excellent food-safety track record and a long-standing commitment to responsible antibiotic use.
He said U.S. pork producers are committed to the highest standards of animal care and food safety. For example, the Pork Quality Assurance Plus certification program includes third-party, on-farm assessments that include evaluating how antibiotics are used.
In addressing concerns raised in the "60 Minutes" segment, NPPC said:
• U.S. pork producers adhere to rigorous government regulations and stringent production standards defined by the industry’s PQA Plus program.
• U.S. pork producers supported regulations adopted three years ago requiring veterinary oversight and limiting the use of antibiotics important for human medicine.
The "60 Minutes" segment opened with journalist Lesley Stahl saying Washington state public-health officials were denied access to hog farms while investigating a 2015 outbreak of drug-resistant salmonella that had hospitalized dozens of people.
The outbreak was tied to roaster pigs, and public health officials traced the cause of the outbreak to a slaughterhouse in Graham, Wash. They wanted to sample pigs at the farms that supplied them but were denied access by the National Pork Producers Council, a state epidemiologist leading the investigation told "60 Minutes."
However, National Pork Producers Council does not have that authority, NPPC’s Monroe said.
The farmers have the right to invite or deny sampling. They declined because it was clear the packing plant was the source of the issue, he said, adding that NPPC supported their decision and shared it with the state health officials.
Monroe said no other outbreaks were reported other than from pork processed at that plant. There was contamination from that strain of salmonella throughout the plant, which was shut down because of unsanitary conditions.
“And we discovered the plant sent trucks back to farms — trucks that were washed with recycled waste water from the plant. Again, the source of the outbreak was very clear. Testing on the farm could never have been conclusive,” he said.
Stahl said “it’s almost impossible” to get on farms to conduct inspections and stop infection outbreaks from spreading, even for public health officials.
She said when she asked NPPC’s Wagstrom to help her team visit a hog farm, Wagstrom “raised a surprising concern — biosecurity.”
It didn’t make it into the segment, but NPPC said farmers take biosecurity very seriously to prevent someone from carrying a disease into a barn.
Strict biosecurity protocols also help prevent outbreaks of diseases, such as African swine fever, which continues to spread across China and other parts of Asia.
“While on-farm access is limited, the U.S. pork industry is highly regulated and USDA conducts surveys on farms periodically and makes these findings available,” NPPC said.
In addition, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service monitors animal diseases and has the authority to investigate possible foreign animal diseases on farms, a spokesman for APHIS told Capital Press.
Checks and balances
NPPC’s Monroe said protecting the health of pigs and providing safe food is paramount for pork producers. It’s a highly regulated industry that produces the safest food in the world, he said.
The industry complies with a wide range of state and federal regulations, including those administered by USDA, FDA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, he said.
“U.S. pork producers actively advocate for USDA funding required to gather farm data that supports our commitment to continuous improvement. We want consumers to know about the commitment on farms to produce safe food,” he said.
There are also other checks and balances to help ensure animal and food safety including guidelines and monitoring by the Center for Veterinary Medicine, National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank, American Veterinary Medical Association, Animal Health Institute, National Animal Identification System, and the Centers for Disease Control.
The television segment pointed out that FDA banned the use of antibiotics in livestock for growth purposes in 2017. They can still be used to treat and control disease. But they can also be used for disease prevention — an allowance the news show deemed a “loophole.”
Monroe said antibiotics used to prevent pigs at risk from getting sick must be prescribed by a licensed veterinarian.
“Ultimately, preventive use can reduce the overall need to use antibiotics. When an animal becomes sick, it can increase the need to use antibiotics, he said.
While sales of antimicrobials “medically important” to humans for use in livestock increased 9% in 2018 year over year, they have decreased by 38% from the peak in 2015, according to the latest data from FDA, which regulates the use of antibiotics on farms.
“Although there’s broad scientific acknowledgement that the use of antibiotics in people is the primary source of antibiotic resistance, agriculture is committed to responsible use in animals to minimize any contribution,” Monroe said.
As for the new swine inspection system, it is supported by research, according to NPPC. The voluntary program is designed to increase efficiency and effectiveness of the federal inspections and to provide more flexibility for adopting new food-safety technologies, according to NPPC.
It had been 50 years since pork inspections had last been modernized, and the changes were long overdue, NPPC said.
“It is important to know that the USDA maintains absolute authority and accountability for inspection,” NPPC said.
A spokesman for USDA Food Safety Inspection Service told Capital Press that “'60 Minutes' not only failed to understand the basics of the Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection final rule but conveniently left out of their story those facts that didn’t fit their piece.”
The final rule has two parts — mandatory microbial testing requirements for swine establishments and the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System, which establishments can choose to operate under, or they can remain under the traditional slaughter inspection system.
Under both traditional inspection and the new system, FSIS inspectors will conduct 100% ante-mortem inspection and 100% carcass-by-carcass inspection.
The final rule is based on what FSIS learned from a 20-year pilot program. Under the rule FSIS inspectors are positioned within a few feet from the establishment sorters and able to see everything the plant employees see.
If FSIS inspectors find persistent defects when they are inspecting carcasses, they will take appropriate action such as stopping the production line and issuing noncompliance records.
Therefore, it doesn’t make sense for an establishment not to train its employees properly. Failure to do so could result in stoppages or regulatory actions from FSIS.
“Regarding line speeds, we want to make it clear that carcasses and parts cannot go by as fast as the company wants,” the spokesman said.
That allegation was made in the segment by a microbiologist at George Washington University and an expert in drug-resistant bacteria.
Establishments determine their line speeds based on their equipment, size and the condition of the animals, and their ability to maintain control for pathogens when operating at a given line speed, the FSIS spokesman said.
In addition, line speeds depend on the number of employees the establishments hire and train to perform sorting activities. Moreover, line speeds depend on FSIS’ ability to inspect. FSIS inspectors have the authority to slow and stop the line to ensure food safety and inspection are achieved.
The "60 Minutes" report described the U.S. pork industry as big industrial farms owned by multibillion-dollar companies, some of them foreign.
USDA data show 64% of the 64,871 farms with hog sales in 2017 had 24 animals or fewer, but the vast majority of animals sold were from the 12% of farms with inventories of 5,000 or greater. Those large-scale farms accounted for 94% of animals sold in 2017.
“Regardless of size, U.S. pork producers consistently focus on best practices in animal care and food safety,” NPPC’s Monroe said.
The data also show 86% of hog farmers are independent producers who accounted for 34% of the animals sold in 2017. Another 13% were contract growers who accounted for 43% of sales.
Producers classified as contractor or integrator, a person or business that pays someone else to raise the animals, accounted for 0.9% of farms and 23% of the animals sold.