Last June, Iowa State researcher Tara Smith delivered preliminary results of a study linking the deadly, antibiotic-resistant pathogen MRSA to pigs in concentrated animal feedlot operations. Despite mounting evidence of the link from Canada and Europe, U.S. public-health officials had never formally studied the issue, even though MRSA kills something close to 20,000 Americans every year — more than AIDS.

In a must-read blog post at the time, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s ace health reporter Andrew Schneider documents the craven inaction of the FDA and the USDA as this public-health menace gained force. (I weighed in here.) As Schneider wrote:

An effective way to say there isn’t a problem is never to look. That seems to be precisely what most U.S. government food-safety agencies are doing when it comes to determining whether the livestock in our food supply is contaminated with MRSA and if so, whether the often-fatal bacterium is being passed on to consumers who buy and consume that meat

Now Smith’s research has been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Examining CAFOs scattered in Iowa and Illinois, Smith and her team found the MRSA strain in 49 percent of pigs and 45 percent of the workers who tend them. The sample size is small; more study must be done. Will the government undertake it?

A real reckoning with the MRSA-CAFO link could deliver a devastating blow to the meat industry. To keep animals alive while stuffed together by the thousands, standing in their own collected waste, it’s evidently necessary to dose them with lots of antibiotics. CAFO conditions destroy animal’s immune systems; antibiotics pick up the slack. Take them away, and the CAFO model might crumble.

That, presumably, is why the Bush agencies so studiously ignored the problem. Let’s hope the Obama FDA and USDA do better.

Update [2009-1-28 8:40:10 by Tom Philpott]:

The Seattle PI’s indispensable Schneider reacts to the publication of Smith’s findings:

So I called some disease detectives and food safety specialists in agencies responsible for ensuring that our food supply is safe. You could almost hear them cringe over the phone. And, no, to the best of their knowledge, neither the FDA, USDA nor CDC had launched systematic testing of the U.S. meat supply for MRSA. One physician said that a study was being done on the MRSA strain (ST398) that Smith had found on the pigs but added, “I don’t think it has anything to do with meat.”