Understanding foodborne microbial hazards for smarter food policies

One in six Americans contracts a foodborne illness each year (CDC). Such illness can mean an unpleasant day of vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and/or worse— hospitalization or death in rare cases. “There’s something that can be said about the problem of foodborne illness, that can’t be said of many other public health problems of the day” said Elisabeth Hagan, Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA, who opened a January 25th foodborne hazards conference convened at the Pew Charitable Trusts offices in Washington DC, “and that is: Foodborne illness is preventable.

The day-long conference “Managing the Risk of Foodborne Hazards: STECs and Antibiotic-Resistant Pathogens” was organized jointly by Pew and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Hagan and other conference speakers focused their attention on antibiotic-resistant pathogens and shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (E. coli). A key message that I heard from several speakers was that we know enough today to develop policies that can enable action in addressing the most pressing foodborne hazards.

Ground BeefCentral to the development of smarter food policies is incorporating our understanding the ecology of foodborne microbes. For example, understanding the ecology of toxin-producing E. coli strains can improve our ability to detect the right types of E. coli in tainted foods. In another example, nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in food animal production creates a persistent collection of antibiotic-resistant bacterial genes or a ‘resistome’ on farms that is difficult to dismantle. Antibiotic-resistance genes transferred to pathogenic bacteria creates a health hazards for animal workers, slaughterhouse workers, farm neighbors, and to consumers who handle or prepare raw meat in their kitchens.

Antibiotic-resistant pathogens

The Pew/CSPI conference focused on antibiotics in food animals because in 2009 nearly 80% by weight of all antimicrobials were sold for use in food animal, and the remaining 20% by weight were used in human medicine, as reported last year by Ralph Loglici on the Livable Future Blog.

Resistance is an inevitable result of using antibiotics on food animals or humans. In the words of Quijing Zhang of Iowa State University, “[it is] always going to happen.” Once gut bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, they can trade the blueprints for resistance to other beneficial bacteria or with pathogenic bacteria in a giant microbial swap meet called ‘the resistome.’

 The microbial world’s resistome and our own human-centered biome collide more often than we think—just talk to a health care provider about hospital-acquired antibiotic resistant infections or read the latest 2008 report on the quality of retail meats from the U.S. National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System.

 When humans take antibiotics or animals are given antibiotics, these are individual decisions—and as Dr. Stuart Levy of Tufts University pointed out, “[these individual decisions have] societal effects when antibiotics are mismanaged, such that every dose of antibiotics has a consequence.” Levy underscores the severity of current practices, saying, “the fact that we are still practicing [the use of antibiotics in animal production] is an embarrassment and a mistake.”

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What is a family farm?

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Capitol Hill briefing, yesterday, on Industrial Animal Farms and Worker Health and Safety was informative and compelling. It was also contentious. While Dr. Steven Wing, University of North Carolina epidemiologist and environmental justice expert, discussed the transformation of agricultural practices over the last few decades he was interrupted by a Congressional staffer who took issue with Wing’s statement that many of the family farms are disappearing and being replaced by industrial food animal operations. The interruption was brief, but the issue of “family farms” was raised again during the question and answer session.

Several briefing attendees claimed that their families had owned farming operations for generations, some of whom now run confinement livestock operations, also known as industrial food animal production (IFAP) facilities. Tensions grew when two attendees boisterously expressed their beliefs that even though many family farmers have shifted their farming practices to industrial models that they are still technically running family farms.

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Pew to Brief Congress of CAFO Impacts on Workers, Communities

picture-3On the heels of CLF’s Congressional Briefing Dec. 2, the Pew Environmental Group will be holding a Capitol Hill briefing tomorrow to discuss the impact on workers and communities of CAFO’s. The briefing, Industrial Animal Farms and Worker Health and Safety, is being held in collaboration with Rep. Raúl Grijalva, Co-Chair, Congressional Progressive Caucus. It is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 17, from 10 – 11:30 am at the US Capitol, Room HC-8. Please RSVP to Shannon Heyck-Williams if you plan to attend.

In the Dec. 2 briefing, leading experts in economics, public health and public policy and Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), a leading voice on antibiotic resistance, discussed the impact of resistant infections on the U.S. healthcare system and the need to phase out inappropriate use of antibiotics as growth promoters in the production of food animals. The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) hosted the event with Rep. Slaughter.

The economic burden of antibiotic resistance on the American healthcare system is measurable and staggering. In 2008, the Institute of Medicine reported that antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including MRSA, cost the U.S. $4-5 billion a year. Accordingly, the CDC estimates that 2 million Americans contract resistant infections and out of those, 90,000 die. A full recap of that briefing can be found here.

Looking Ahead: Obama’s Food Policy Platform

The Huffington Post this week looks at U.S. food policy and how it could potentially change under the Obama Administration. ‘Yes We Can’ Create a Sane Food Policy in the U.S. calls for President-elect Obama to appoint “an independent-minded secretary of agriculture who shares his concern for our nation’s youth, our national health, global development, the environment, and animals, and [to] create a National Food Policy Council and appoint a food-policy “czar” to oversee and coordinate a comprehensive and forward-thinking policy.” 

The piece also highlights the findings of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production’s report, Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America — a joint initiative between The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health — as well as the recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations

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Poultry Run-off, Antibiotics Use Must Be Addressed

The recently-released report from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (“Experts Urge U.S. to Bar Drugs in Animal Feed,” The Baltimore Sun, April 30, 2008) not only sheds further light on issues that should concern everyone in the Chesapeake Bay Region, but also offers some achievable recommendations to help improve our state’s resources for generations to come.

The comprehensive 2-1/2 year study by the Pew Commission, which focused on the effects of industrial farm animal production on public health, the environment, animal welfare, and rural America, found the routine use of antibiotics, along with poor-to-nonexistent waste handling procedures, of particular concern. These findings should resonate with Maryland residents who have witnessed the dramatic degradation of the Chesapeake Bay. Read More >