April 19, 2013

Superbugs, Chicken Farmers, Explosions and More

Robert Lawrence, MD

Robert Lawrence, MD

Director Emeritus

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Too few drugs in the pipeline to treat MRSA?

More superbugs in meat. On Tuesday, The New York Times ran a story about the sizable increase in the amount of meat contaminated with superbugs, or antibiotic-resistant forms of bacteria. The data, collected in 2011, are from NARMS (the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System), which is a joint program of the FDA, USDA, and CDC, from samples of ground turkey, pork chops and ground beef collected from supermarkets. The science is now very clear that the proliferation of superbugs in commercial meat is a result of our rampant use of antibiotics in food animal production. Unfortunately, the article quotes a professor of veterinary medicine who says—erroneously—that antibiotics are only used to keep animals healthy. I wish the reporter had taken a few minutes to check the quote against the facts.

The drug pipeline. Yesterday Reuters ran a story about the dearth of drugs in development for new, nasty superbugs like CRE (Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, aka the “nightmare bacteria”), MRSA, and antibiotic-resistant E. coli. The drug pipeline is on “life support,” says the president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, or IDSA. Those who are worried about the drug pipeline should also focus some attention on what is contributing to the increased prevalence of superbugs: the misuse of antibiotics on industrial-scale farms. Share your thoughts on Twitter via @IDSAinfo.

A blow to small-scale farmers. Most small-scale chicken farmers have it pretty rough to begin with. As “contract growers,” they operate largely at the whim of integrators like Perdue and Tyson, with few rights and little leeway. And now the little protection they had was cut by a measure tucked into the Federal Spending Bill last month. This protection had required integrators to give growers 90-days notice before suspending delivery of birds—and it was just eliminated, demonstrating once again why a former contract grower on the Delmarva peninsula once described herself “as a serf on my own land.” I had hoped that Senator Barbara Mikulski (D–MD) would intervene on behalf of the small farmer, but so far she has not. You may send your own thoughts to her via Twitter @senatorbarb.

Ag-gag—Tennessee and California. In Tennessee, the House voted to send its “ag-gag” bill to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk for his expected signature. (It already passed the Tennessee Senate earlier this week on a 22-to-9 vote.) But in California, the sponsor of a similar bill pulled his measure from the agenda. Ever wonder what is behind this unholy alliance between conservative politicians and industrial food animal producers to keep consumers in the dark about factory farming? If people could see the conditions under which animals live in confinement, they would eat less pork, beef, and chicken and consume fewer dairy products.

Earth Day. Monday, April 22, is the 43rd annual Earth Day, and there are some exciting things happening around here in Baltimore. Our Aquaponics facility will be taking part in a national Aquaponics Association event called Tour de Tanks, and the CLF-produced film Out to Pasture: The Future of Farming? will air on Maryland Public Television on Tuesday evening. More information is here. There will be other events on some of the Hopkins campuses—more information on those are here. And remember that this Monday, in honor of the Earth, could be a special Meatless Monday – good for your health and good for the Earth.

Food Policy Conference. This week, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D–MI), Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Michael Taylor, a deputy commissioner at the FDA, keynoted the National Food Policy Conference in Washington, DC. For some news on what was discussed, check out the hashtag #FPC2013 on Twitter. It looks like some hot topics were ag-gag laws, sugar consumption, pink slime, and consumer power.

Supermoms and superdads.  This week, a Pew Charitable Trusts Health Initiative, Supermoms against Superbugs, took action online to shine a light on industrial farms’ antibiotic use and to put an end to the practices that threaten our health. Check out the Twitter session and the “blog carnival” on Twitter via the hashtag #saveabx.

The Boston and Texas explosions. We experienced several tragedies this week. As someone who finished four Boston marathons in my younger days, I was horrified by the killing and maiming of runners and spectators at one of America’s premier athletic events. During my medical school training and my years on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, I had many professionally fulfilling experiences at five of the hospitals caring for victims of the attacks. Never had I witnessed anything like this sadistic attack. The other tragedy, also with loss of life and many injured, appears as of this writing to have been an industrial accident at a fertilizer facility in the rural community of West, Texas, near Waco. Anhydrous ammonia, the product of the Haber-Bosch process and requiring large amounts of natural gas, is a key input of industrial agriculture. It can also be highly explosive as demonstrated in Texas, with the blast registering 2.1 on the Richter scale.

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