U.S. officials dither while antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains creep into our pork supply
In Meat Wagon, we round up the latest outrages from the meat and livestock industries.
The good news is that people are earnestly trying to figure out if a deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria strain is infecting our nation’s vast supply of pork.
The bad news is, they don’t work for a government regulator with the power to do something about it. Rather, they’re university researchers and journalists, whose only real power is the public outrage they can generate through their work.
Prepare to be outraged by the work of University of Iowa professor Tara Smith and veteran Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Andrew Schneider. Prepare also to give up industrially produced pork, if you’re still eating (or, even worse, cooking with) the stuff.
First, some background. No one disputes that a bacteria called MRSA — methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — has become a major public-health menace.
According to a recent post on Schneider’s Secret Ingredients blog, the Center for Disease Control reported 94,360 “invasive MRSA infections” in the United States in 2005 — of which 18,650 resulted in death. More people now die of MRSA than of AIDs.
If MRSA’s prevalence is a settled fact, its provenance remains cloudy. Until the 1980s, infections were mainly limited to people who spent time in hospitals and nursing homes. That led scientists to conjecture that it originated from the medical establishment’s heavy reliance on antibiotics. When you concentrate a bunch of sick people and dose them liberally with antibiotics, it turns out, bacteria strains mutate and develop resistance. Who would have thought?
Then, sometime in the 1990s, MSRA cases began to pop up among folks who had never gone near a hospital. Around the same time, the pork industry was undergoing a massive wave of consolidation — more and more hogs crammed into tighter and tighter spaces. And since hogs raised under such conditions essentially cede their immune systems, the only way to keep them alive was , you guessed it, by dosing them liberally with antibiotics.
Can anyone guess what happened next?
Evidently, FDA and USDA regulators couldn’t. As MRSA cases — and deaths — piled up, these folks looked the other way, Schneider reports. And they remain slack-jawed and flummoxed, even as evidence mounts of a link between the deadly bacteria and industrial pork production.
Earlier this year, Schneider reports, a Canadian researcher found MRSA in “10 percent of 212 samples of pork chops and ground pork bought in four Canadian provinces.” The Canadian pork industry, which exports some 762 million pounds of pork into the U.S. annually, has also embraced the concentrated-animal feedlot operation (CAFO) model, with its heavy reliance on antibiotics.
The Canadian researcher even delivered his findings at a Center for Disease Control confab. The response from U.S. authorities? Awkward silence. The USDA, which is responsible for the safety of imported food, doesn’t test for MRSA, Schneider reports.
The FDA, responsible for monitoring the safety of U.S.-grown foods, might have been expected to start testing our homegrown pork in light of the Canadian findings. But it didn’t, according to Schneider.
Recently, though, a researcher at the University of Iowa decided to do what U.S. authorities have avoided: test U.S. CAFO-grown pigs for MRSA. Evidently, it wasn’t t that hard. Schneider reports that assistant professor of epidemiology Tara Smith and her team of graduate students merely “swabbed the noses of 209 pigs from 10 farms in Iowa and Illinois.”
The results were unsettling: they “found MRSA in 70 percent of the porkers.” Stunningly, this apparently marked the first-ever publicly released test of U.S. hogs for MRSA.
Now, the pork industry, no doubt fretting about how those 18,650 MRSA-related deaths might affect its bottom line, already has an answer: If you cook pork to the well-done phase, MRSA dies. So, if you catch it., it’s your fault — you didn’t follow proper cooking procedure.
That’s absurd, though. First, cooking pork chops to the cardboard phase won’t protect people who work with live animals or raw pork: those who toil on hog farms or in slaughterhouses. Indeed, Smith and her researchers also tested 20 workers on Iowa hog farms. Nine of them carried the same MRSA strain as the pigs. And MRSA is contagious, meaning it can move from workers to their families and broader communities.
Second, home cooks who handle raw MRSA-tainted pork are subject to risks that proper cooking can’t protect them from. “The main possible concern is that people could get MRSA on their hands from raw pork, then touch their nose. The nose is the prime site for MRSA to live,” one researcher told Schneider.
Another possible path to infection is through cuts on the hands.
So why aren’t public-safety officials actively rooting out the causes of a menace that’s costing more lives than AIDs? My guess is that they realize that without heavy use of antibiotics, the meat industry — a multi-billion-dollar behemoth with friends in high places — would wither.
And the problem might not be limited to pork. A Canadian researcher told Schneider that “MRSA could also be in beef, chicken and lamb, but no one is checking.”
The time has come for a federal government that places public safety above the needs of industry.