[Pharmwaste] Pathogens in Our Pork
dldebiasi at deq.virginia.gov
Mon Mar 16 11:10:28 EDT 2009
March 15, 2009
Pathogens in Our Pork
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
We don't add antibiotics to baby food and Cocoa Puffs so that children
get fewer ear infections. That's because we understand that the overuse
of antibiotics is already creating "superbugs" resistant to medication.
Yet we continue to allow agribusiness companies to add antibiotics to
animal feed so that piglets stay healthy and don't get ear infections.
Seventy percent of all antibiotics in the United States go to healthy
livestock, according to a careful study by the Union of Concerned
Scientists - and that's one reason we're seeing the rise of pathogens
that defy antibiotics.
These dangerous pathogens are now even in our food supply. Five out of
90 samples of retail pork in Louisiana tested positive for MRSA - an
antibiotic-resistant staph infection - according to a peer-reviewed
study published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology last year. And
a recent study of retail meats in the Washington, D.C., area found MRSA
in one pork sample, out of 300, according to Jianghong Meng, the
University of Maryland scholar who conducted the study.
Regardless of whether the bacteria came from the pigs or from humans who
handled the meat, the results should sound an alarm bell, for MRSA
already kills more than 18,000 Americans annually, more than AIDS does.
MRSA (pronounced "mersa") stands for methicillin-resistant
Staphylococcus aureus. People often get it from hospitals, but as I
wrote in my last column, a new strain called ST398 is emerging and seems
to find a reservoir in modern hog farms. Research by Peter Davies of the
University of Minnesota suggests that 25 percent to 39 percent of
American hogs carry MRSA.
Public health experts worry that pigs could pass on the infection by
direct contact with their handlers, through their wastes leaking into
ground water (one study has already found antibiotic-resistant bacteria
entering ground water from hog farms), or through their meat, though
there has been no proven case of someone getting it from eating pork.
Thorough cooking will kill the bacteria, but people often use the same
knife to cut raw meat and then to chop vegetables. Or they plop a pork
chop on a plate, cook it and then contaminate it by putting it back on
the original plate.
Yet the central problem here isn't pigs, it's humans. Unlike Europe and
even South Korea, the United States still bows to agribusiness interests
by permitting the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animal feed.
The peer-reviewed Medical Clinics of North America concluded last year
that antibiotics in livestock feed were "a major component" in the rise
in antibiotic resistance. The article said that more antibiotics were
fed to animals in North Carolina alone than were administered to the
nation's entire human population.
"We don't give antibiotics to healthy humans," said Robert Martin, who
led a Pew Commission on industrial farming that examined antibiotic use.
"So why give them to healthy animals just so we can keep them in crowded
and unsanitary conditions?"
The answer is simple: politics.
Legislation to ban the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in agriculture
has always been blocked by agribusiness interests. Louise Slaughter of
New York, who is the sole microbiologist in the House of
Representatives, said she planned to reintroduce the legislation this
"We're losing the ability to treat humans," she said. "We have misused
one of the best scientific products we've had."
That's an almost universal view in the public health world. The
Infectious Diseases Society of America has declared antibiotic
resistance a "public health crisis" and recounts the story of Rebecca
Lohsen, a 17-year-old New Jersey girl who died from MRSA in 2006. She
came down with what she thought was a sore throat, endured months in the
hospital, and finally died because the microbes were stronger than the
This will be an important test for President Obama and his agriculture
secretary, Tom Vilsack. Traditionally, the Agriculture Department has
functioned mostly as a protector of agribusiness interests, but Mr.
Obama and Mr. Vilsack have both said all the right things about looking
after eaters as well as producers.
So Mr. Obama and Mr. Vilsack, will you line up to curb the use of
antibiotics in raising American livestock? That is evidence of an
industrial farming system that is broken: for the sake of faster-growing
hogs, we're empowering microbes that endanger our food supply and
threaten our lives.
In January, I announced this year's "win a trip" contest for a
university student to accompany me on a reporting trip to Africa. After
reviewing 900 entries, I have a winner: Paul Bowers, a sophomore at the
University of South Carolina. I've listed the finalists on my blog,
Deborah L. DeBiasi
Email: dldebiasi at deq.virginia.gov
WEB site address: www.deq.virginia.gov
Virginia Department of Environmental Quality
Office of Water Permit Programs
Industrial Pretreatment/Toxics Management Program
PPCPs, EDCs, and Microconstituents
Mail: P.O. Box 1105, Richmond, VA 23218 (NEW!)
Location: 629 E. Main Street, Richmond, VA 23219
More information about the Pharmwaste