In Meat Wagon, we round up the latest outrages from the meat and livestock industries.

As the fruits of three decades of financial-market deregulation and lax oversight ripen on Wall Street, now is a fitting time to mull over our government’s efforts to regulate the food industry. Let’s think specifically about its actions regarding antibiotics in livestock production.

In industrial meat production, you stuff animals together in close contact with their own waste, essentially ruining their immune systems. To keep them alive until slaughter weight, you dose them liberally with antibiotics.

Not surprisingly, antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains have begun to rise up and infect humans. A nasty bacteria called MRSA has been definitively linked to factory-farmed pork; another one, a widely prevalent one called Camplylobacter jejuni, apparently hails from industrial poultry and cattle farms (see below).

Essentially, industrial feedlots are generating bugs that our antibiotics can’t treat. Uh … maybe it’s time to regulate antibiotic use for livestock? 

Good news: the House Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry held hearings Monday touching on antibiotic use on livestock farms.

The bad news: “The House Subcommittee did not ask any human health experts to testify,” writes Daniel Klotz of the Pew Charitable Trusts in a Monday email.

If the committee didn’t see fit to consult anyone with knowledge of the threats posed by antibiotic-resistant pathogens to humans, it did round up quite a roster of meat-industry flacks, Klotz informs me. Look who testified:

  • Dr. Craig Rowles, DVM, Pork Producer, on behalf of the National Pork Producers Federation, Carroll, Iowa
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  • Dr. Michael Rybolt, Director, Scientific and Regulatory Affairs, National Turkey Federation, Washington, D.C.
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  • Dr. Robert D. Byrne, PhD., Senior Vice President, Scientific & Regulatory Affairs, National Milk Producers Federation, Arlington, Virginia
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  • Dr. Spangler Klopp, DVM, Diplomat, American College of Poultry Veterinarians, Corporate Veterinarian, Townsends, Inc., on behalf of the National Chicken Council, Georgetown, Delaware
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  • Mr. Blair Van Zetten, Oskaloosa Food Products, on behalf of United Egg Producers, Oskaloosa, Iowa
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  • Dr. Michael D. Apley, DVM, PhD, Director, PharmCATS Bioanalytical Laboratory, and Associate Professor, Department of Clinical Sciences, Kansas State University, on behalf of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Manhattan, Kansas

Nice one! Will it take a public-health meltdown, analogous to the financial one now underway, to get Congress to stop stroking its pals in the meat industry?

Update [2008-9-30 14:37:45 by Tom Philpott]:Check out Pew’s Save Our Antibiotics web site. Get this: “as much as 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are being fed to cattle, swine, and poultry on industrial animal farms, for purposes other than treating disease.” I forgot to note that feedlot operators also use antibiotics because they make animals grow faster.

Meanwhile, antibiotic-resistant bugs thrive

So there’s this food-borne bacterial pathogen I’ve never heard of called Camplylobacter jejuni. Evidently, it’s a pretty big deal. From MeatProccess.com, reporting on a recent U.S./U.K. study of it: 

Camplylobacter jejuni causes more cases of gastroenteritis in the developed world than any other bacterial pathogen, including E. coli, Salmonella, Clostridium and Listeria combined, claims the study.

What’s it like to come down with a case of Camplylobacter? Sounds pretty unpleasant. Here’s Wikipedia:

It produces an inflammatory, sometimes bloody, diarrhea, periodontitis or dysentery syndrome, mostly including cramps, fever and pain.

Yikes. Did I mention that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has declared it “increasingly resistant to current antibiotic treatments.” And by what pathway do you figure this unpleasant bacteria strain is flourishing and making its way into our food supply?

If you guessed industrial-scale beef and poultry farms, you’re right. 

 Previously, researchers had trouble pinpointing the origins of Camplylobacter, since it can live in water and soil as well as in animals’ intestinal tracts. But researchers in a recent study compared it to Camplylobacter jejuin DNA sequences collected from wild and domestic animals and the environment, and matched them with samples from 1,231 Camplylobacter sufferers in the U.K., MeatProcess.com reports,

The results, published in the journal PloS Genetics: “in 57 per cent of the cases, the bacteria could be traced to chicken, and in 35 per cent to cattle.” 

The study jibes with results found by the European Food Safety Authority, which found that “the most common food borne route of campylobacteriosis is through poultry meat,” MeatProcess.com reports.