Chicken, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and regulatory independence
In Meat Wagon, we round up the latest outrages from the meat and livestock industries.
After my post Monday on aspartame’s wild and wacky path from pharmaceutical-company lab to beverage sweetener for millions of people, I got into a back-and-forth on Twitter with star progressive bloggers Matt Yglesias and Adam Ozimek.
They seemed shocked (and a little angry) by my suggestion that something approved both by the FDA and its European counterparts might actually menace the public health. Well, I, in turn, am shocked by the credibility they lavish on these institutions. When you study the politics of food, stories of the “FDA [or USDA or EPA or some European agency] approves [insert dodgy, lucrative practice or substance]” nature are hardly earth-shaking.
Indeed, industry influence over the food-related regulatory institutions seems pretty widespread, as I tried to show in the aspartame post. On Tuesday, an all-too-apt example crossed my desk. It involves the practice of routine use of antibiotics on factory farms — which almost certainly contributes to the surge in antibiotic-resistant infections among people. MRSA — an antibiotic-resistant staph infection — now kills more Americans than AIDS.
So the FDA must be courageously intervening to curtail this menace, yes? Well, not quite. For years, presumably to avoid ruffling the meat industry’s, uh, feathers, the FDA neglected to estimate the percentage of total U.S. antibiotic consumption that goes to livestock. But last December, the FDA finally did — and the answer turned out to be … a whole lot: something like 60 percent of all antibiotics consumed in the U.S.
And as the ace “scary disease” reporter Maryn McKenna showed in a Tuesday post, the agency has hard evidence that meat commonly sold in grocery stores is routinely infected with resistant bacteria. She points us to a “little-read report put out every year by the US Food and Drug Administration as part of its participation in NARMS, the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System that’s shared by the FDA, USDA and CDC.”
So this is a report put out by FDA and shared with USDA, responsible for monitoring food safety issues on livestock farms and inspecting meat for pathogens, and by CDC, responsible for, well, helping control disease. It came out last December, so the agencies have had time to mull it. What did the FDA report show? McKenna reports:
[I]n 2008: 45% of Salmonella on chicken were resistant to tetracycline and 30% to penicillins; among enterococci (common gut bacteria, and therefore common contaminants of meat during slaughtering), 65% resistant to tetracycline and more than 90% to lincosamides, which include the everyday drug clindamycin.
In other words, chicken on supermarket shelves is routinely tainted with antibiotic-resistant bugs. And often more than one. McKenna quotes the FDA report to the effect that 38 percent of chicken breasts carrying salmonella had strains resistant to at least three antibiotics, as did 51 percent of salmonella-tainted ground turkey samples. More than 15 percent of both contained resistance to at least four. Clearly, factory-scale poultry farmers are feeding their caged birds antibiotic cocktails.
To my knowledge, McKenna’s post marks the first time the FDA’s report has been publicly discussed. The agency (according to my searches) doesn’t seem to have even put out a press release on it. Apparently, it was uploaded to the FDA website on Dec. 17 of last year — where it likely would have languished without public comment if McKenna hadn’t broken the story. (She also broke the story on the FDA’s report on antibiotic use on farms.)
We find out from the report that the FDA has been monitoring the situation since 2002 — and finding plenty of antibiotic-resistant strains on meat sold directly to consumers. And they’ve been sharing the information with other leading regulatory/public health agencies — but not so much to the people they’re supposed to be protecting and informing: i.e., us.
Now, it’s true that under Obama, the FDA has broken agency tradition and taken a public stand against routine antibiotic use of factory farms. In testimony before Congress last year, USDA deputy commissioner Joshua Sharfstein declared flatly that “To avoid unnecessary development of resistance under conditions of constant exposure (growth promotion/feed efficiency) to antibiotics, the use of antimicrobials [on factory farms] should be limited to those situations where human and animal health are protected.” In his testimony, Sharfstein mentions the U.S. Interagency Task Force on Antimicrobial Resistance — but somehow omitted to mention that his agency had been finding hard evidence dating back to 2002 that chicken on U.S. supermarket shelves routinely carries multiple antibiotic resistance.
And now, six weeks since the FDA report and a year since Sharfstein’s testimony, policy hasn’t moved at all. Where are the loud public statements from the FDA trumpeting the fact that our factory farms are cooking up superbugs that make their way to our meat? Where’s the USDA on this topic, which is supposed to protect the public from tainted meat? Where’s CDC?
Canada, too, has a meat/superbug problem, McKenna shows. She points to a CBC News investigation, in which journalists took 100 chicken samples from grocery-store shelves and had them tested. The results:
Two-thirds of the chicken samples had bacteria. That in itself is not unusual — E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter are often present in raw chicken. What was surprising was that all of the bacteria uncovered during the Marketplace sampling were resistant to at least one antibiotic. Some of the bacteria found were resistant to six, seven or even eight different types of antibiotics. [Emphasis mine.]
Canada’s regulations regarding factory-farm antibiotic use are as lenient as ours: The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs acknowledges the resistance problem but informs us that on the national level, “Antibiotics used to improve [livestock] growth are approved in Canada.”
My critics Yglesias and Ozimek will be shocked that U.S. and Canadian regulations could be so brazenly skewed to favor industry profit over public health. Me, not so much.
Agribiz-funded GOP Rep. takes aim at the Chesapeake
Meanwhile, what regulations we do have on the books to rein in the meat industry are forever under attack. The latest: On Monday, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) casually added an amendment the GOP’s 2011 House Appropriations Act that would prevent the EPA from executing its relatively modest plan to protect the Chesapeake Bay from the ravages of the poultry industry. Goodlatte’s amendment goes like this:
None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to develop, promulgate, evaluate, implement, provide oversight to, or backstop total maximum daily loads or watershed implementation for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
By “maximum daily loads,” Goodlatte literally means loads of chicken shit oozing into what was once the nation’s most vibrant fishery — and is now nearly dead, its aquatic life snuffed out by those very loads (which are full of algae-feeding nutrients as well as — as we know from above — antibiotic-resistant bacteria). Goodlatte doesn’t even want EPA to “evaluate” the situation: information is power, and thus information must be shut off. The EPA had recently ramped up efforts to get factory farms to limit the amount of waste that makes it into the Bay. Predictably, the agribusiness lobby howled bloody murder in response.
And now Goodlatte — recipient of bountiful agribiz cash — is doing their bidding.