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.
OK, still catching up. Today: food, foodborne illness, and antibiotic use and resistance in food — lots of news in a multi-item rundown. (Under normal circumstances, I’d give each of these items a post of its own; but since they all happened in the past few weeks, it seems better to note them and move on.)
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.
So, hi, constant readers. Sorry, didn’t mean to disappear for quite that long. I’ve been on the road, first teaching for a week at the University of Wisconsin as their Science Writer in Residence, and then in New York to attend the annual meeting of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, where I received the June Roth Memorial Book Award for Superbug. (Plus, in between those two, I recorded an episode of the Virtually Speaking Science podcast with Tom Levenson, which you can find here, about the looming post-antibiotic disaster; and an episode of Skeptically Speaking with Marie Claire Shanahan, which you can find here, about the emerging story of H7N9 flu; and got tangentially involved in the Boston bomber manhunt.)
While I was offline, a far amount of news happened. In the next few days, I’ll do my best to catch up. Here’s a start, all on infections and antibiotic resistance.
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.
On the heels of the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control declaring emerging antibiotic resistance a “nightmare,” the U.K.’s Chief Medical Officer released a report today in which she calls resistance a “catastrophic threat” which poses a national security risk as serious as terrorism. In an interview published overnight, she warns that unless resistance is curbed, “We will find ourselves in a health system not dissimilar to the early 19th century” in which organ transplants, cancer chemotherapy, joint replacements and even minor surgeries become life-threatening.
It’s not often that you get to hear a top federal health official deliberately deploy a headline-grabbing word such as “nightmare,” or warn: “We have a very serious problem, and we need to sound an alarm.”
Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said both Tuesday, during a press conference announcing new CDC statistics on the advance of the highly drug-resistant bacteria known as CRE. His language — plus the fact that he conducted the entire press conference himself, instead of just making a brief opening statement — seem to me a clear signal that the CDC is taking this resistance problem seriously, and hoping we do too.
And we should. Here’s what the CDC announced Tuesday:
- Healthcare institutions in 42 states have now identified at least one case of CRE.
- The occurrence of this resistance in the overall family of bacteria has risen at least four-fold over 10 years.
- In the CDC’s surveillance networks, 4.6 percent of hospitals and 17.8 percent of long-term care facilities diagnosed this bug in the first half of 2012.
Those are dire reports.
Sorry for the radio silence, constant readers: I’m preparing for the big annual conference of the Association of Health Care Journalists, where I am on the board, and the tasks are piling up. Here’s one of the things that happened last week, while I was off getting ready: The Senate committee charged with oversight of agricultural antibiotic use took up re-authorization of the regulation that delivers data on ag drugs, without allowing any testimony about the negative, unintended consequences of misusing and overusing those drugs.
Fortunately, the House of Representatives provided a partial corrective: Members there introduced a bill that would require better data collection. Unfortunately, that bill is a long way from law — and the re-approval of the FDA regulation is close.