- Pork samples purchased from Walmart contained dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as "superbugs," according to a new report published by animal-welfare group World Animal Protection. The report found 80% of pork samples tested from Mid-Atlantic Walmart stores were resistant to at least one antibiotic, while 37% of the bacteria in the Walmart samples were resistant to three or more classes. Overall, roughly 27% of the resistant bacteria found on Walmart’s pork were resistant to classes categorized as Highest Priority Critically Important Antimicrobials by the World Health Organization.
- A total of 160 pork samples were tested by researchers at Texas Tech University. Of those, 80 were from Walmart and 80 were from an unnamed competing national retail chain in the Mid-Atlantic region. The samples were tested in 32 batches for E. coli, salmonella, enterococcus and listeria. The group said enterococcus was found in 13 batches, E. coli in 10 batches, salmonella in six and listeria in three batches.
- "The presence of multidrug-resistant bacteria on pork products illustrates the role the pork supply chain plays in the global health crisis caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria," Alesia Soltanpanah, executive director of World Animal Protection U.S., said in a release. She said the fact that pork from one of the nation's largest retailers contains bacteria resistant to antibiotics critically important to human health is "particularly alarming and should raise concerns."
While the report from the World Animal Protection — an organization whose goal is to protect animals and end cruelty toward them — mainly singled out Walmart, researchers also tested pork samples from another national retail chain and found antibiotic-resistant bacteria. However, the group said no batches from the second retailer contained two strains of multidrug-resistant bacteria in a single batch, and none of the bacteria from that retailer’s samples were resistant to antibiotics considered critically important to human health.
These kinds of antibiotics, known as Highest Priority Critically Important Antimicrobials, are those to which there are few or no alternatives to treat people with serious infections. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has said antimicrobial resistance poses a serious threat to the safety and quality of feed and food, especially in food-producing animals.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antibiotic resistance "is one of the biggest public health challenges of our time." The CDC said at least 2.8 million people get an antibiotic-resistant infection annually in the U.S., and more than 35,000 of them die.
Soltanpanah told Newsweek that World Animal Protection had been in contact with Walmart about the pork test results, but she said the world's largest retailer was "not responsive" to concerns about its suppliers. As of Nov. 25, Walmart had not posted a statement or release about the report on its website. However, the retailer has a tracking and audit program for fresh pork and requires suppliers to meet a list of specific animal welfare requirements.
Although the report did not name the second retailer, chances are it's Costco, Kroger or Target. That's because World Animal Protection noted in the report this unnamed retailer "has committed to strengthen its animal welfare policies for its pork suppliers, including working towards a commitment to complete elimination of gestation crates for breeding sows."
According to the release, while Walmart hasn't yet made a specific commitment to phase out these crates — small stalls with not enough room for a pregnant sow to turn around — Target and Costco have agreed to partner by 2022 only with suppliers who don't use them. Kroger said it would do so by 2025.
Walmart is well aware of potential food safety problems with pork and the need for supply chain transparency. In 2016, the company partnered with IBM and Tsinghua University in Beijing to digitally track the movement of pork in China using blockchain, or a list of records linked together into essentially a digital ledger.
Food companies are being challenged by consumers demanding more transparency and checking manufacturing processes to make sure the products they buy reflect their values. Younger consumers responding to surveys note how they're willing to pay premium prices for organic, natural and cruelty-free foods. Both Perdue and Tyson have attracted negative publicity involving animal welfare in recent years and had to change their practices as a result.
Antibiotic-free has become more prevalent as a label claim. Giant Food, a unit of Ahold Delhaize, debuted a private-label pork brand in 2017 with no antibiotics or hormones and 100% vegetarian-fed. And major poultry producers such as Tyson Foods, Pilgrim's Pride and Perdue have committed to reducing or removing antibiotics from their chicken.
There has been overall progress as well. As the antibiotics issue attracts more publicity, the use of medically important ones in animal agriculture has fallen, according to a report out earlier this year from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA found domestic sales and distribution of such antimicrobials in food-producing animals dropped 33% between 2016 and 2017. The agency said the reduction showed efforts to support antimicrobial stewardship are having a significant impact.