Among foods that inspire a cult-like following, pork often leads the pack, as evidenced by the 65% of Americans eager to name bacon the country’s national food.
Unfortunately, that popularity comes at a cost. Along with being the most commonly consumed meat in the world, pork may also be one of the most dangerous, carrying some important and under-discussed risks that any consumer should be aware of (1).
Thanks to the revival of nose-to-tail eating, offal has redeemed itself among health enthusiasts, especially liver, which is prized for its vitamin A content and massive mineral lineup.
But when it comes to pork, liver might be risky business.
In developed nations, pork liver is the top food-based transmitter of hepatitis E, a virus that infects 20 million people each year and can lead to acute illness (fever, fatigue, jaundice, vomiting, joint pain and stomach pain), enlarged liver and sometimes liver failure and death (2, 3).
Most hepatitis E cases are stealthily symptom-free, but pregnant women can experience violent reactions to the virus, including fulminant hepatitis (rapid-onset liver failure) and a high risk of both maternal and fetal mortality (4). In fact, mothers who get infected during their third trimester face a death rate of up to 25% (5).
In rare cases, hepatitis E infection can lead to myocarditis (an inflammatory heart disease), acute pancreatitis (painful inflammation of the pancreas), neurological problems (including Guillain-Barré syndrome and neuralgic amyotrophy), blood disorders and musculoskeletal problems, such as elevated creatine phosphokinase, indicating muscle damage, and multi-joint pain (in the form of polyarthralgia) (6, 7, 8).
People with compromised immune systems, including organ transplant recipients on immunosuppressive therapy and people with HIV, are more likely to suffer from these severe hepatitis E complications (9).
So, just how alarming are pork’s contamination stats? In America, about 1 out of every 10 store-bought pig livers tests positive for hepatitis E, which is slightly higher than the 1 in 15 rate in the Netherlands and 1 in 20 rate in the Czech Republic (10, 11). One study in Germany found that about 1 in 5 pork sausages were contaminated (12).