Quick post today as I’m getting ready for some travel. Just to note: The G8 summit is beginning in Ireland, and there is a push on to put intensive agriculture and its antibiotic use on the agenda for discussion by the major Western economies.
If you’ve been around here a while, you might remember a couple of posts about the pastured-poultry movement. Pastured poultry is new old-style: beyond cage-free, beyond free-range, it puts chickens out on grass for most of their lives, producing a bird that lives longer, looks healthier, and tastes distinctly different from standard supermarket chicken. (“They have huge, old-fashioned taste,” Shaun Doty, a chef who has been working with them, told me last year. “They cook differently, and they eat differently.”
Pastured poultry represents a radically different way of raising chicken than the standard large-intensive model: no antibiotic use, no crammed chicken houses, no genetic-monoculture birds with their inevitable physical vulnerabilities. So far, it’s a niche in the market: The number of producers is small, the birds are more expensive — and even though the chickens taste like what our grandparents would have eaten, most of us have never known chicken tasted like that, so they can be a challenge to sell. The first problem, though, is raising awareness that the alternative exists at all.
There’s a project I’ve been watching on Kickstarter and I’m a little surprised it hasn’t gotten more traction, so I thought I’d call it out. TL;DR: You know those wallet cards and apps that help you make good choices about buying seafood: what’s endangered, what’s overfished, what’s responsible to eat? This effort, BuyingPoultry.com, hopes to do the same for chicken — but it’s only halfway to its goal.
I don’t often recommend print magazines here, because I figure they already have their own megaphone, and whatever power we at Wired have to push along other writers, I’d rather use to promote bloggers who might not have high traffic. That said: There is a piece in the current Harper’s which should be a must-read for anyone interested in livestock agriculture and meat production in America, written by long-time immersive journalist and NYU professor Ted Conover. It is entirely behind a paywall, and so (to my perception) is not being talked about — but it should be. It is a detailed and unbiased account of how large-scale slaughter happens, and it makes some important points about routine antibiotic use.
The antibiotic era was barely 20 years old when people started raising concerns about using the new “miracle drugs” in agriculture. Penicillin first entered use in 1943, streptomycin in 1944, tetracycline in 1948 — and by 1965, the United Kingdom’s Agricultural Research Council was hearing testimony that organisms common in food animals, especially Salmonella, were becoming resistant to the antibiotics being used on the animals while they were alive. By 1969, the UK government had compiled an official report outlining the danger, and by 1973, a task force of the US Food and Drug Administration had concurred, and concluded the only safe action was to withdraw approval to use antibiotics in animals. (At which, as we now know, they would never be successful.)
The policy difficulty regarding this long-recognized problem has never been the emergence of resistant bacteria on farms; no one seriously disputes that resistance emerges whenever antibiotics exert selective pressure on bacteria, killing the vulnerable and opening an ecological niche into which the surviving not-vulnerable can expand. The sticking point has been the difficulty of proving that those resistant bacteria depart from farms, cross to humans, and cause resistant illness in them. Stuart Levy demonstrated it in 1976, on an experimental farm plot he set up just to make the proof. Most of the rest of the research, though — and after decades, there are hundreds of pieces of research — has been observational and retrospective: Looking at the drugs administered to populations of animals (about which we have very little data), measuring the antibiotic-resistant illness that arises in the human population, and making increasingly sophisticated backward matches between the resistance factors that show up in humans and the drugs that are deployed primarily on farms.
Demonstrating the bacterial traffic prospectively and experimentally, as Levy did, is challenging not just logistically but also ethically. It is difficult to imagine a study design that could trace specific animals, their meat, and their eaters in a large group of free-living humans; and unless you have volunteers, as Levy did, the study would push ethical boundaries as well. But having that lack of definition in the middle of the animal-to-human bacterial flow permits uncertainty — which proponents of continued ag antibiotic use exploit.
A new study of Danish farmers and their livestock may have ended that uncertainty. It is still retrospective, but its observations — using whole-genome sequencing — are so fine-grained that their tracing of the bacterial traffic seems to me to be difficult to challenge.
I suspect we think of large-scale confinement agriculture as a uniquely American issue. Possibly that’s because growth-promoter antibiotic use, which makes meat-raising efficient, originated in the United States; more likely, it’s because some of the largest firms in that sector — Smithfield and Tyson, for example — are US-based. But public and private research efforts (including the US Department of Agriculture, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and the Pew Charitable Trusts) have documented that intensive livestock-raising is increasing in emerging economies such as India and China; as incomes rise, demand for meat does too.
A paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates that the unintended consequences of confinement agriculture are occurring in those countries as well. A multi-national team of researchers from Michigan State University and two campuses of the Chinese Academy of Sciences found — well, I can’t put it better than their paper’s title does: “Diverse and abundant antibiotic resistance genes in Chinese swine farms.”
A few days ago, the Food and Drug Administration released two important documents related to antibiotic use in livestock raising, and what the results of that antibiotic use are. I’d say that they released them quietly, except, when it comes to this issue, every release seems to be quiet, never accompanied by the press releases or briefings that other divisions of the FDA use to publicize their news.
The two documents are the 2011 Retail Meat Report from the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, or NARMS, and the 2011 Summary Report on Antimicrobials Sold or Distributed for Use in Food-Producing Animals, which is known for short as ADUFA, after the 2008 Animal Drug User Fee Act that mandated the data be collected.
These two reports capture almost all the data we receive from the federal government about antibiotic use in livestock production (which is not the same thing as “all the data the federal government possesses” — there is evidence they receive more than they release). So their annual release is an important indicator for whether antibiotic use in meat production, and antibiotic resistance in meat, are trending up or down.
The news does not appear to be good.
In the past months, there have been several troubling research reports, from different parts of the world, exploring aspects of the same problem: Multi-drug resistant bacteria are present in chicken, apparently because of the use of antibiotics in poultry production, and are passing to people who work with, prepare or eat chicken, at some risk to their health.
Here are a few of the publications:
- From the US Department of Agriculture and University of Georgia, which has probably the deepest poultry-science research bench in the United States, an analysis of multi-drug resistant E. coli found on broiler chicken carcasses.
- From several institutions in Germany, an analysis that finds “alarmingly high” levels of multi-drug resistant bacteria on retail chicken — including on organic chicken, which the authors say may be due to bacterial colonization of chicks before they are bought by organic producers.
- From the Czech Republic, a report that bacteria found on chicken there are resistant to an additional class of drugs important in human medicine, fluoroquinolones.
- From a multi-national team, a look at the close resemblance of multi-drug resistant E. coli between poultry and humans in several countries including the United States.
- And most recently, two more European reports, from the Netherlands and from Sweden, of high rates of multi-drug resistant bacteria on chicken meat (and in the Netherlands paper, a comparison to resistant bacteria in humans as well).
Happy New Year, constant readers. For the second year in a row, here’s my list of which of my posts (91 in 2012!) most moved you to react. Last year (find that list here), I counted down based on which posts provoked the most comments. This year, Wired installed a tweet-counter — which registers only if someone clicks through from Twitter, but not if the post’s URL is mentioned or RT’d — so I thought it would be amusing to score posts that way this year.
And the verdict is: You care enormously about food policy, but you continue to be fascinated by the emergence of scary diseases — and, to my surprise and pleasure, you care about public understanding of science as well.
There are things in your life that are so ubiquitous, you never stop to consider them. Traffic signals. Magnets. For me, chicken nuggets. They seem to be everywhere: every fast-food chain, every kids’ menu, every supermarket freezer aisle. I don’t particularly care for them, but I never stopped to wonder where they came from. I assumed, as with so much else in our food culture, McDonald’s was responsible, and other food producers had followed the McNugget’s market-devouring lead.
Well, yes, and no. As part of my reporting on food policy, I’ve been looking into the history of poultry production — and reading up on what drove its vast post-war expansion, I stumbled across the lost history of the nugget. It appears to have been invented — or at least, originally proposed — by a Cornell professor, 17 years before McDonald’s had essentially the same idea.