Danish pig disease threatens local pork fans

Last week the BBC sent a reporter to Denmark to look at the public health scandal that has engulfed Danish pig farmers.

Ninety percent of Danish pig farms are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria called MRSA CC398 or Pig MRSA as it is more commonly known.

Now the “superbug” has turned up in the UK thanks to Danish pig exports and the alarm bells are ringing.

Last year 1200 Danes were found to be infected with MRSA CC398 and Danish media report that it has caused at least six deaths.

In this country, we import and eat significant amounts of Danish pork – should we also be worried?

The answer depends on who you ask.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) in Britain says “the risk to human health from the preparation, handling and/or consumption of LA-MRSA/MRSA contaminated foodstuffs in the UK is very low. FSA advice remains unchanged - i.e. that raw food should be stored appropriately, handled hygienically and cooked thoroughly. In combination, these measures should be sufficient to ensure that any harmful bacteria present are destroyed."

But Professor Erik Millstone, a food safety expert at the University of Sussex, said the FSA was wrong to downplay the seriousness of LA-MRSA.

“The FSA might give its usual response of: ‘If people cook food properly then they’re not at risk’,” he said. “But not everyone cooks everything properly, and cooks often handle [meat] before they cook it. We increasingly eat outside of our homes, and from kitchens in cafes and restaurants where it’s impossible for consumers to know how the food is prepared or cooked.”

The fact remains – Pig MRSA is potentially deadly bacteria which can be resistant to even the strongest antibiotics.

Like other superbugs that kill people in hospitals, Pig MRSA is dangerous if a person who has been colonised ends up needing surgery.

New Zealand consumers can, of course, eliminate the risk by not purchasing Danish pork or pork from other European producers like Poland who also have the bug, but as Ian Carter, Chairman of NZPork points out, the labels on many pork products don’t carry the country of origin.

“When you go into a supermarket most of the pork products don’t say where they are from, the only ones that really do are from New Zealand, but a lot of people are not looking, they are buying on price. I believe it suits the supermarkets to keep things confused.”

He adds that if you eat small goods there is a high chance you are eating imported pork “because it is cheaper, that’s where a lot of it ends up”.

More than 60 percent of all pork eaten in New Zealand is now imported from 22 different countries, a significant turnaround from a few years ago.

“Since the health standards for imported pork were relaxed by the Government in 2013, imports have soared, says Carter.

“What we are seeing is that a lot of people living in the cities are asset rich but cash poor and food is becoming a discretionary item. Protein is an expensive part of people’s diets and buying imported pork is one of the easiest ways to save money.”

Carter says his theory of discretionary spending is borne out by a rather bizarre observation. 

“When it’s a lotto jackpot week it is a disaster for our [local] industry. “

Imported pork is not subjected to any animal welfare standards and many overseas pig farmers make systematic use of growth hormones and antibiotics.

The spread of Pig MRSA is linked to the overuse of antibiotics in pig farms. The cramped and dirty conditions in factory farms help the disease to flourish but Carter says the local industry is wary of making too big a deal out of these issues.

“For a start, we don’t want to scare people off eating pork altogether, and we do use antibiotics but in a very controlled way. We also have a growth hormone that is licensed for use but the industry here has decided not to use it."

Carter says local pork production hasn’t increased to meet the demand because farmers are scared to invest.

“We have 102 pig farms in New Zealand but only two new ones have been developed in the last 10 years. The flood of cheap imports makes it too risky to invest in infrastructure, as you might never get a return. Pig farming is not like other farming where rising land values underpin your long-term return. “

Then there is the hidden subsidies and scale that Carter says make it hard to compete.

“When they hit a downturn in the US, the Government supported the local industry by buying its pork at good prices for the schools, hospitals and prisons. New Zealand hospitals and prisons buy imported pork because it is cheaper so we lose out both ways.”

“And in terms of scale it is hard to compete. I’ve been to one US abattoir that kills 34,000 pigs a day, whereas we kill 13,000 a week for the whole country.”

But there are two things that give Carter some optimism about the future of the local industry.

The first is that research has prompted NZ Pork to change its marketing. It is dropping its 100% NZ and rebranding with “Born and raised in NZ”.

“The 100% didn’t mean much to the consumer anymore, we are confident the new messaging will make people more aware of New Zealand Pork.”

But perhaps the biggest boost for the industry could come from a Green Party private member's bill.

The Consumers' Right to Know (Country of Origin Food) passed its first reading a week ago and will now head to a select committee.

“We really hope this bill goes through so consumers can understand better where their food actually comes from,” says Carter.

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