Bad news today from an investigation conducted by Consumers Union that was released on the web and will be published in the January issue of the nonprofit’s magazine, Consumer Reports. Tests on pork chops and ground pork, bought in six cities under a variety of labels, showed high rates of contamination with a range of bacteria, many of which were antibiotic-resistant — and also showed evidence of a drug so controversial that it is banned in some other countries.
On a day when we all think about food, I want to revisit, and update, my favorite food-related story of the year.
Constant readers may remember, from back in June, the story of 9-year-old Martha Payne of Scotland. Her blog “Never Seconds,” featuring photographs of her unhealthy school lunches, caused so much embarrassment in her school district that the county council tried to shut her down. The news of their mendacious unfairness rippled across the media and the Internet, and hundreds of thousands of people — including a number of celebrities, and thousands of Superbug readers — applied enough pressure to get the decision reversed.
Martha (whom I’ve never met) seems to be a smart, sensible kid, with caring, thoughtful parents; her mother is a primary-care doctor, and her father has a small farm. With rare maturity, they resisted enormous pressure to monetize her celebrity, and turned the attention into a benefit for someone else.
Actually, lots of someones. They asked readers and supporters to donate to a charity, Mary’s Meals, that feeds schoolchildren in some of the world’s poorest areas — including Malawi, where Scottish roots date back to the arrival of explorer David Livingstone in the 1860s. At this point, five months later, Martha and her family have raised £120,000 (almost $200,000), enough to build a kitchen and distribute school supplies to thousands of kids.
My grandparents — children of Irish and Scottish immigrants, for whom calories per penny was a much more important food value than fine cuisine — had a little mnemonic for Thanksgiving. It went like this:
Turkey, tetrazzini, ptomaine.
Perhaps that requires a little explanation.
The turkey part should be self-evident. Tetrazzini — a cream-sauce casserole based on spaghetti, one of those early 20th-century dishes invented to honor Italian opera stars — was what they did the second day with the turkey leftovers. Ptomaine (the “p” is silent) was what they worried lay in wait for them on the third. A late 19th-century term that has passed out of use, it derived from the notion that poisonous compounds lurked in rotting food.
For people who grew up before the antibiotic era — and who learned to cook when refrigerators were literal ice chests that kept things cool at best — “food poisoning” was a reasonable fear, and a risk they refused to take. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, no matter how delicious it appeared, whatever remained of the turkey went into the trash.
I’ve been offline not just for deadlines (as usual), but also because I was preparing for the annual conference of the National Association of Science Writers; I am a member and was a presenter on a couple of panels. The NASW meeting is twinned every year with a second meeting hosted by the nonprofit Council for the Advancement of Science Writing; NASW sessions are peer-to-peer journalism learning, whereas CASW ones feature academic researchers talking about their newest work.
This year’s meetings (collectively called SciWri12, or #SciWri12 if you want to find them on Twitter) were held in Raleigh, NC, and one of the most striking talks there was a report from epidemiologist Steven Wing of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill about his decade-long work investigating the local health effects of very large swine farms. (I’ve written about Wing’s work before.)
The newest news is a paper that he and his team published just as his talk commenced, in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, which finds an association between air pollution and odor in the near vicinity of swine farms, and hikes in blood pressure in local residents. When you put the pieces together — most hog c0nfinement operations are in poor, non-white areas; cardiovascular disease is endemic in African Americans; North Carolina lies within the worst US area for cardiovascular disease, known as the “Stroke Belt” — you can see that anything that makes blood pressure chronically worse is bad news for public health.
Earlier this week, something happened to me that happens to at least 48 million people in the United States every year: I got a foodborne illness. After a completely normal weekend and Monday, I woke in the middle of the night unusually thirsty; I glugged a big glass of water and stumbled back to bed. I got up Tuesday morning still thirsty, feeling kind of chilled and sluggish, and with no appetite. I skipped my usual fruit and yogurt, downed my usual two cups of coffee, skipped my usual hour-long walk and went to my desk.
About two hours later, my abdomen started to cramp.
About 30 minutes after that, I realized it would be a good idea if I went into the bathroom fairly soon.
I was there for a while. [Read more…]
A final post from the ICAAC meeting, which concluded at one end of the Moscone Center in San Francisco Wednesday just as the Apple iPhone 5 launch was beginning at the building’s other end. (Definitely a crossing of geek streams.)
There’s far too much going on at a meeting like this to cover everything. So what emerges, as journalists move around the session rooms and exhibit floors, are stories regarding whatever caught a reporter’s eye based on his or her existing interests and news sense.
What caught my eye was a lot of research into foodborne illness, and particularly into the possibility of food being a reservoir for antibiotic resistance (which, constant readers will know, is something I’m interested in). [Read more…]
A quicker post today from the ICAAC meeting because there’s lots of news coming down this afternoon. At a conference like this, where the focus is on new behavior of pathogens and new drug compounds to contain them, there is a natural focus on emerging antibiotic resistance. Out of the first two days of (hundreds of) papers and posters, here are just a few unnerving reports.
This has been my week: Oh, wow: I should write about that. No, wait — that. Damn, new news; I’ll blog this paper instead. Except, hold on — this one is great too…
So to solve my indecision before the week ends, here you go: Most of this week’s most interesting news, in round-up form.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released its latest mapping of obesity in the United States, based on data gathered by a CDC project known as BRFSS for the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. The BRFSS is a massive, continuous telephone survey of adults in U.S. states and territories, and every year it churns out high-quality information on a vast array of public health issues: smoking, heart disease, arthritis, asthma, immunization coverage, cancers, diet…. For anyone interested in health data, it’s a huge resource.
The current dive into the data for 2011 finds, unsurprisingly but depressingly, that a significant proportion of the U.S. population is obese. Not just overweight: obese. From the report:
[O]besity prevalence ranged from 20.7% in Colorado to 34.9% in Mississippi in 2011. No state had a prevalence of obesity less than 20%. 39 states had a prevalence of 25% or more; 12 of these states had a prevalence of 30% or more: Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia.
So, there’s this thing. A big project. An investigative project, actually. I’ve been working on it for months, and finally I can tell you about it, because it all just published, in various venues, today.
I’ve been working with a great new group, the Food and Environment Reporting Network — one of the grant-funded journalism organizations that have arisen in the wake of the collapse of mainstream journalism — on an important, under-reported topic. Which is: Over the past decade, a group of researchers in several countries have been uncovering links between the use of antibiotics in chicken production and the rising occurrence of resistance in one of the most common bacterial infections in the world.