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.

Obama’s ‘Secretary of Food’?

Posted in Barack Obama by allisonkilkenny on December 11, 2008

Nicholas Kristof

Nicholas Kristof

Nicholas Kristof

As Barack Obama ponders whom to pick as agriculture secretary, he should reframe the question. What he needs is actually a bold reformer in a position renamed “secretary of food.”

A Department of Agriculture made sense 100 years ago when 35 percent of Americans engaged in farming. But today, fewer than 2 percent are farmers. In contrast, 100 percent of Americans eat.

Renaming the department would signal that Mr. Obama seeks to move away from a bankrupt structure of factory farming that squanders energy, exacerbates climate change and makes Americans unhealthy — all while costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

“We’re subsidizing the least healthy calories in the supermarket — high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soy oil, and we’re doing very little for farmers trying to grow real food,” notes Michael Pollan, author of such books as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food.”

The Agriculture Department — and the agriculture committees in Congress — have traditionally been handed over to industrial farming interests by Democrats and Republicans alike. The farm lobby uses that perch to inflict unhealthy food on American children in school-lunch programs, exacerbating our national crisis with diabetes and obesity.

But let’s be clear. The problem isn’t farmers. It’s the farm lobby — hijacked by industrial operators — and a bipartisan tradition of kowtowing to it.

I grew up on a farm in Yamhill, Ore., where my family grew cherries and timber and raised sheep and, at times, small numbers of cattle, hogs and geese. One of my regrets is that my kids don’t have the chance to grow up on a farm as well.

Yet the Agriculture Department doesn’t support rural towns like Yamhill; it bolsters industrial operations that have lobbying clout. The result is that family farms have to sell out to larger operators, undermining small towns.

One measure of the absurdity of the system: Every year you, the American taxpayer, send me a check for $588 in exchange for me not growing crops on timberland I own in Oregon (I forward the money to a charity). That’s right. The Agriculture Department pays a New York journalist not to grow crops in a forest in Oregon.

Modern confinement operations are less like farms than like meat assembly lines. They are dazzlingly efficient in some ways, but they use vast amounts of grain, as well as low-level antibiotics to reduce infections — and the result is a public health threat from antibiotic-resistant infections.

An industrial farm with 5,000 hogs produces as much waste as a town with 20,000 people. But while the town is required to have a sewage system, the industrial farm isn’t.

“They look profitable because we’re paying for their wastes,” notes Robert P. Martin, executive director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. “And then there’s the cost of antibiotic resistance to the economy as a whole.”

One study suggests that these large operations receive, in effect, a $24 subsidy for each hog raised. We face an obesity crisis and a budget crisis, and we subsidize bacon?

The need for change is increasingly obvious, for health, climate and even humanitarian reasons. California voters last month passed a landmark referendum (over the farm lobby’s furious protests) that will require factory farms to give minimum amounts of space to poultry and livestock. Society is becoming concerned not only with little boys who abuse cats but also with tycoons whose business model is abusing farm animals.

An online petition that can be found at www.fooddemocracynow.org calls for a reformist pick for agriculture secretary — and names six terrific candidates, such as Chuck Hassebrook, a reformer in Nebraska. On several occasions in the campaign, Mr. Obama made comments showing a deep understanding of food issues, but the names that people in the food industry say are under consideration for agriculture secretary represent the problem more than the solution.

Change we can believe in?

The most powerful signal Mr. Obama could send would be to name a reformer to a renamed position. A former secretary of agriculture, John Block, said publicly the other day that the agency should be renamed “the Department of Food, Agriculture and Forestry.” And another, Ann Veneman, told me that she believes it should be renamed, “Department of Food and Agriculture.” I’d prefer to see simply “Department of Food,” giving primacy to America’s 300 million eaters.

As Mr. Pollan told me: “Even if you don’t think agriculture is a high priority, given all the other problems we face, we’re not going to make progress on the issues Obama campaigned on — health care, climate change and energy independence — unless we reform agriculture.”

Your move, Mr. President-elect.