Many consumers these days think natural or antibiotic-free products are worry-free. The prevailing thought among these consumers is that if the animal received antibiotics while growing, it’s not safe to eat. The result has led to increased sales of meat raised naturally (or sans antibiotics) in the big, beautiful outdoors. What could be better and what could be safer?

Increasingly, consumers say they don’t want antibiotics used at any level or at any production stage for the foods they consume. They equate antibiotic use with unsafe food. What they don’t know, or they may choose to ignore, is that just the opposite has been shown.

A recent comparison of antibiotic-free pork and pork raised conventionally shows that pigs raised without antibiotics are prone to carrying bacteria and parasites connected with food-borne ailments.

The study revealed that pigs raised outdoors without antibiotics had higher rates of three food-borne pathogens than did pigs raised on conventional farms receiving antimicrobial drugs on a preventative basis. “Animal-friendly, outdoor farms tend to have a higher occurrence of Salmonella, as well as higher rates of parasitic disease,” said Wondwossen Gebreyes, DVM, at The Ohio State University and lead study author.

Scientists tested pigs on farms in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin. Of those, 324 pigs were raised in antibiotic-free systems and 292 were raised on conventional farms. The researchers collected blood samples to test for the presence of antibodies against bacterial and parasitic infections. Higher rates of infection were consistent on the "natural" farms in all three geographic regions.

Gebreyes found that 54 percent of the pigs on antibiotic-free farms tested positive for Salmonella, compared to 39 percent of the conventionally raised pigs. Also worth noting was that two pigs raised in the natural setting tested positive for Trichinella spiralis, a parasite considered virtually eradicated from conventional U.S. pork operations.

On antibiotic-free farms, pigs are often raised on open ground where it is easier to contract pathogens and internal parasites. Researchers theorize that naturally-raised pigs’ exposure to moisture, vegetation, parasites and other animal species could contribute to their higher pathogen rates.

The study is published in a recent issue of the journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease. April 1, 2008, 5(2): 199-203. doi:10.1089/fpd.2007.0071. “We are just doing the science and showing the results,” Gebreyes said. “Does having an antibiotic-free and animal-friendly environment cause the re-emergence of historically significant pathogens? I think that is an extremely important question for consumers, policymakers and researchers to consider.” 

It’s also extremely important that the pork industry use findings like this to refute misconceptions and show that modern pork production methods have the consumer, the animal and food safety, uppermost in mind.