Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Our Pigs, Our Food, Our Health

Posted in Uncategorized by allisonkilkenny on March 12, 2009

Nicholas Kristof

piglet-1The late Tom Anderson, the family doctor in this little farm town in northwestern Indiana, at first was puzzled, then frightened.

He began seeing strange rashes on his patients, starting more than a year ago. They began as innocuous bumps — “pimples from hell,” he called them — and quickly became lesions as big as saucers, fiery red and agonizing to touch.

They could be anywhere, but were most common on the face, armpits, knees and buttocks. Dr. Anderson took cultures and sent them off to a lab, which reported that they were MRSA, or staph infections that are resistant to antibiotics.

MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) sometimes arouses terrifying headlines as a “superbug” or “flesh-eating bacteria.” The best-known strain is found in hospitals, where it has been seen regularly since the 1990s, but more recently different strains also have been passed among high school and college athletes. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that by 2005, MRSA was killing more than 18,000 Americans a year, more than AIDS.

Dr. Anderson at first couldn’t figure out why he was seeing patient after patient with MRSA in a small Indiana town. And then he began to wonder about all the hog farms outside of town. Could the pigs be incubating and spreading the disease?

“Tom was very concerned with what he was seeing,” recalls his widow, Cindi Anderson. “Tom said he felt the MRSA was at phenomenal levels.”

By last fall, Dr. Anderson was ready to be a whistle-blower, and he agreed to welcome me on a reporting visit and go on the record with his suspicions. That was a bold move, for any insinuation that the hog industry harms public health was sure to outrage many neighbors.

So I made plans to come here and visit Dr. Anderson in his practice. And then, very abruptly, Dr. Anderson died at the age of 54.

There was no autopsy, but a blood test suggested a heart attack or aneurysm. Dr. Anderson had himself suffered at least three bouts of MRSA, and a Dutch journal has linked swine-carried MRSA to dangerous human heart inflammation.

The larger question is whether we as a nation have moved to a model of agriculture that produces cheap bacon but risks the health of all of us. And the evidence, while far from conclusive, is growing that the answer is yes.

A few caveats: The uncertainties are huge, partly because our surveillance system is wretched (the cases here in Camden were never reported to the health authorities). The vast majority of pork is safe, and there is no proven case of transmission of MRSA from eating pork. I’ll still offer my kids B.L.T.’s — but I’ll scrub my hands carefully after handling raw pork.

Let me also be very clear that I’m not against hog farmers. I grew up on a farm outside Yamhill, Ore., and was a state officer of the Future Farmers of America; we raised pigs for a time, including a sow named Brunhilda with such a strong personality that I remember her better than some of my high school dates.

One of the first clues that pigs could infect people with MRSA came in the Netherlands in 2004, when a young woman tested positive for a new strain of MRSA, called ST398. The family lived on a farm, so public health authorities swept in — and found that three family members, three co-workers and 8 of 10 pigs tested all carried MRSA.

Since then, that strain of MRSA has spread rapidly through the Netherlands — especially in swine-producing areas. A small Dutch study found pig farmers there were 760 times more likely than the general population to carry MRSA (without necessarily showing symptoms), and Scientific Americanreports that this strain of MRSA has turned up in 12 percent of Dutch retail pork samples.

Now this same strain of MRSA has also been found in the United States. A new study by Tara Smith, a University of Iowa epidemiologist, found that 45 percent of pig farmers she sampled carried MRSA, as did 49 percent of the hogs tested.

The study was small, and much more investigation is necessary. Yet it might shed light on the surge in rashes in the now vacant doctor’s office here in Camden. Linda Barnard, who was Dr. Anderson’s assistant, thinks that perhaps 50 people came in to be treated for MRSA, in a town with a population of a bit more than 500. Indeed, during my visit, Dr. Anderson’s 13-year-old daughter, Lily, showed me a MRSA rash inflaming her knee.

“I’ve had it many times,” she said.

So what’s going on here, and where do these antibiotic-resistant infections come from? Probably from the routine use — make that the insane overuse — of antibiotics in livestock feed. This is a system that may help breed virulent “superbugs” that pose a public health threat to us all. That’ll be the focus of my next column, on Sunday.

A Food Agenda for Obama

Posted in Barack Obama, politics by allisonkilkenny on December 29, 2008

Christopher D. Cook

Within hours of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack’s nomination last week as Agriculture secretary, websites were humming with well-documented critiques of his affinity for genetically engineered crops, agribusiness giant Monsanto, heavily polluting factory farms, and other Big Farm interests.

Some critics expressed outrage, others surprise, especially since they had mounted a vigorous, 55,000-plus strong online petition to persuade President-elect Barack Obama to nominate someone more progressive who would promote sustainable food and farming.

The need for sweeping change could not be clearer when it comes to our food: At taxpayer expense, current policy subsidizes large corporate farms and destructive industrial agriculture, which rob the countryside of economic diversity and precious environmental resources, such as water and topsoil.

These same subsidies, and anemic regulatory enforcement, encourage an increasingly monopolized food system, and a “cheap food” policy that lards us with fatty, processed foods – the cost of which is ultimately dear, more than $100 billion annually for obesity and diet-related diseases. Today’s food system also generates a sizable portion of America’s greenhouse gases, and rests on fast-dwindling and volatile oil supplies.

Now is the time for something different – change we can eat.

As Mr. Obama weighs a massive stimulus package, he should include new funding streams that promote sustainable food – to build up alternatives such as farmer’s markets, local “foodshed” programs that promote consumption of local produce, and farm-to-institution projects that encourage schools, hospitals, and other large buyers to purchase local organic foods when possible.

The change we need in food is as urgent as any we face – changes that affect national health, energy security, global warming, and more. Here, then, is a not-so-modest nine-point platform for food reform, some of which could be included in Obama’s stimulus package. Other elements may require a lengthier policy push:

1. New public investments targeting sustainable agriculture, defined as organic, small- to mid-sized, diversified farming.

2. New investments in local/regional food networks and foodsheds – to help build up the connections between farmers and consumers, to open up and expand new markets for organic farmers and those considering the transition; for more farmer’s markets and food stores that feature local produce.

3. A moratorium on agribusiness mergers, and strenuous antitrust provisions and enforcement to protect what little is left of diversity in the food economy.

4. A moratorium on all new genetically modified (GMO) products, and an expansion of existing ones, and appointment of a blue-ribbon panel/commission to assess the impact of GMO foods on our environment and our health.

5. A moratorium on – and gradual phasing out of – concentrated animal feeding operations, aka factory farms, which are among the nation’s top polluters of water and air, and breeders of widespread and virulent bacterial strains.

6. Dramatically expanded regulatory enforcement and staffing in the US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to protect food safety and meat industry labor and environmental practices.

7. Slowing the hazardously fast meatpacking (and poultry) assembly line, to protect workers and consumers.

8. Incentives for small-scale urban, suburban, and rural farming ventures oriented toward diversified local food systems.

9. Bold public investment in a raft of public awareness campaigns that build support, and expand markets and demand, for sustainable alternatives such as urban agriculture and gardening, and reducing fast-food consumption.

10. Fill in the blank, and send me your thoughts at www.christopherdcook.com.

Food is a vital cornerstone of both individual life and civil society, and our current system is making us fatter, churning out greenhouse gases, and abusing workers and animals.

With a new administration elected on a “change” agenda, it’s a timely moment to press for the most basic change of all: change in the food that ends up on our plates and in our bodies.

• Christopher D. Cook is a journalist and the author of “Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis.”