‘Superbug’ Transfer: The Jump From Humans, to Animals, and Back

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus

News media outlets throughout the nation were abuzz last week with the report of new scientific research showing, for the first time, how a strain of infectious Staph began life in humans, then spread to livestock where it became MRSA, and then jumped back to humans. The study was published Tuesday in the online journal mBio.

National Public Radio’s popular blog, The Salt, noted in its lead story Tuesday, that “Researchers have nailed down something scientists, government officials and agribusiness proponents have argued about for years: whether antibiotics in livestock feed give rise to antibiotic-resistant germs that can threaten humans.”

“Finally, a smoking gun connecting livestock antibiotics and superbugs,” said a headline in the online environmental publication Grist, written by contributing writer Tom Laskawy. As one who has covered the topic for years, Laskawy was not understating the importance of the research. Read More >

Response to “Math Lessons for Locavores” op-ed

Grist.org recently invited bloggers through it’s Grist Talk: Food Fight series to respond to an August 20th op-ed piece, Math Lessons for Locavores,” by Stephen Budiansky in the New York Times.  What follows is my response:

“I agree with Mr. Budiansky that freight is by some measures cheap, and that the interstate system and trains are convenient conduits from farms to distributors to markets, although this idea is not so new.

community garden in Waverly neighorhood, Baltimore, MD

community garden in Waverly neighorhood, Baltimore, MD

A more interesting question to tackle is: what does the desire to be a locavore say about our disjointed food system, and is there room for improvement by developing regional food systems?

Mr. Budiansky’s argument runs thin when we take a hard look at what consolidated industrial farming and food animal production “return to our land,” as he puts it. It is difficult to be in favor of a farming approach that relies upon mono-cropping using genetically modified seeds and synthetic fertilizers. Likewise, food animal production facilities make for poor neighbors when their (virtually unregulated) wastes and associated land application and spray-field sites spread allergens and antibiotic-resistant bacteria throughout farming communities.

So why pick on locavores? Because when they seek local food, they may also be seeking to buy organically grown or raised foods, from small to mid-sized farms, which can impact entrenched agribusiness interests. Changing food preferences and buying habits may be changing the way food is grown, distributed, and consumed.

For example, the American Meat Institute was defensive when the Meatless Monday campaign, for which Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future serves as a scientific advisor, suggested on NPR that reducing meat consumption one day a week could be good for your health, by potentially reducing saturated fat intake. It isn’t surprising: the average American spends about $550 annually on meat. If the conventional food-animal industry improved production methods by removing growth-promoting antibiotics and recognizing animal welfare, both the quality of their products and the perceptions of their customers may increase.

Food decisions carry weight, and so the lesson here is to speak with your fork and the farms will follow!”

– Dave Love

[This post originally ran Monday, August 23 on Grist.org]

The Changing Food Landscape and the FDA

Baltimore’s former health commissioner, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, is making news as the new deputy director of the FDA, serving under the new commissioner, Dr. Margaret Hamburg. Hamburg and Sharfstein have pledged to reform the food safety system and encourage scientific exchange and better communication to the public.

In the New England Journal of Medicine, Hamburg and Sharfstein acknowledged the difficulty of decision-making at the FDA, often in the absence of complete information, and admitted that recent high profile contaminations (peanut butter, anyone?) have rightfully caused the public to question the agency.

This is certainly a daunting task, but Hamburg and Sharfstein seem ready for the challenge (see some background on them here).

Indeed, there are many aspects of the food system that advocates for public health, the environment, animal welfare and social justice have identified as areas in dire need of improvement. The FDA will have the authority to address some of these issues, but not all. Some recent articles have discussed complicating factors that may impact the safety of the nation’s food supply. Read More >

Happy Earth Day…or Not!

While today reminds us of the environmental challenges we face nationally and globally, it isn’t the only day where we should be concerned about our impact on the Earth (and in turn, how our actions affect the environment and our health).

Earth Day should be about raising awareness of what we are doing every day and how to make meaningful changes, not about “greenwashing” or giving lip service to environmental issues.

Grist, the online environmental magazine, posted a series on whether Earth Day still matters-with several essays on both sides (and a tongue-in-cheek campaign called Screw Earth Day). The self-proclaimed cynical view calls the day “an empty gesture,” and says few people care enough to even make small changes in their daily lives. Then the author turns a bit less cynical and details how we can reclaim the day by doing something that actually matters. Read More >