MRSA’s Third Wave: Part 2 – The Economics

A year after President Kennedy took office he stood before 1800 delegates in a packed auditorium in Washington DC. It was the first ever gathering of the World Food Congress and to mark the significance of the occasion, it was President Kennedy who delivered the opening remarks. The theme was eradication of world hunger and Kennedy emphasized “[The need] to rededicate ourselves to … the objective that all nations, all people, all inhabitants of this earth have all the food that they need, all the food that they deserve as human beings.”

The remarks, of course, were directed mainly at the developing world. At that time the US population was 189 million people; there was plenty of land available for agriculture, and factory farms didn’t exist. Today the population is 321 million, and the US Census Bureau predicts a 50% rise by the year 2060. Interestingly, it is also predicted that the US will be the only developed country in the world that will experience a significant population increase; all other such increases will come from developing countries alone. And this is the clue that alerts us to the deeper story that’s behind MRSA’s Third Wave– the link between poverty and the food supply.

The deeper story concerns the rising tide of the Other America, of the growth in poverty and low-income living. The Census Bureau draws the poverty line at $23,492 a year for a family of four, which right now is 15% of the American population, or 46.5 million people.

But it’s not just people who fit government definitions of poverty that have trouble feeding themselves. It is also the near-poor, the low-income workers, and increasingly the members of an eroding middle class who have to juggle bills or cash in pensions and life savings to pay the mortgage. Estimates put the total number people from abject poverty to those caught by the erosion of the middle class at 150 million, or almost I in 2 members of society. Accordingly, they are forced to rely on cheap food and the industry that supplies it.

There’s a second factor at work that goes unnoticed by the public but nonetheless drives the business model that feeds them: the pull of the billion dollar export market.

On October 18th of this year Canada and the European Union concluded “the biggest deal our country has ever made,” according to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a deal which is measured in the tens of billions of dollars. The agreement permits Canada to export 50,000 tons of beef and 81,000 tons of pork to the 500 million strong European market.

President Obama announced in the State of the Union address this past February, his intention to enter into a similar agreement with the EU by the end of 2014. We can expect that agreement to involve a proportionate increase in the tonnage of beef and pork headed overseas.

Given the enormity of the stakes (and the steaks) involved it’s crucial to the US and Canadian food conglomerates that they continue to out-compete their European and world rivals. Their competitive advantage lies in their use of antibiotics as a growth stimulant and as a way to prevent animal illness. The animals fall prey to disease because they’re forced (by cages) to sit or stand in one spot side-by-side from birth to death, in their own urine and feces. Pastoral images to the contrary seen on food packaging and grocery store walls is simply a marketing strategy. Europe has banned the practice of feeding antibiotics to animals other than as a medicine for ones that are sick. The reason they’ve stopped it, relying on their own studies like the ones just published in JAMA and PLOS, is because they know it sickens the animals, the environment, and people.

These factory farms, these national and international companies, wield a lot of economic and political power. They continue to beat back Congressional efforts to regulate the use of antibiotics as a growth enhancer, such as the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, introduced by Congresswoman Louise Slaughter 4 times since 1967, so far without success. And the Food and Drug Administration, while under strong criticism from the scientific community, has nevertheless refused to regulate industry practice opting instead to offer unenforceable “recommendations” on antibiotic use in animals.

These factory farms, these national and international companies, wield a lot of economic and political power. They continue to beat back Congressional efforts to regulate the use of antibiotics as a growth enhancer, such as the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, introduced by Congresswoman Louise Slaughter 4 times since 1967, so far without success.  And the Food and Drug Administration, while under strong criticism from the scientific community, has nevertheless refused to regulate industry practice opting instead to offer unenforceable “recommendations” on antibiotic use in animals.

Without effective Congressional oversight and FDA regulatory control the factory farm system remains largely unchecked and its operation is instead dictated by market forces: the need to produce literally tons of food quickly and cheaply, and the desire to make a fortune in the export market.
Until this past September, when out of the blue the United States Department of Justice filed criminal charges.

MRSA’s Third Wave: Part 1 – The Factory

1961 was a remarkable year. The Beatles introduced themselves to the world, performing live for the first time at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, England. Over in the United States, John Kennedy was sworn in as president and boldly announced his intention to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. And there was this quiet little event far from the public eye that only decades later went on to capture the world’s attention — the birth of MRSA, first reported in the January edition of the British Medical Journal.

For its first 3 decades of life MRSA was a well-behaved child in the sense that we always knew where to find it – in the hospital and only in the hospital. Its numbers increased over the years, and we noticed, too, that it was springing up in more and more hospitals across the world; first throughout the UK, then on to the US, Europe, Asia, & Australia. But what it didn’t ever do is go out into the community.

Until the late 1990s. When without warning and for reasons we still don’t fully understand a Second Wave of MRSA hit, worldwide. It was turning up in schools, senior’s homes, hostels, prisons, and amongst sports teams – crowded places. In 2007 the Journal of the American Medical Association published an editorial reporting an explosion of MRSA in the US: there were some 90,000 cases that year in which about 20,000 people died. This state of affairs continues to this day but with a new twist.

In the past few years there’s been a growing suspicion among scientists that we are on the verge a potential Third Wave of MRSA, which includes brand new strains, that is coming from our food supply. They’re concerned about animal derived food, raised and brought to market from large-scale factory farms.  The basic equation is this: antibiotics in, antibiotic-resistant organisms – MRSA – out.

They made their case using numbers from 2011 about the factory farm system in the US: That 29 million pounds (15 tons) of antibiotics, are fed to 98 billion food producing cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys raised in confined spaces, which results in 1 billion pounds (500 million tons) of waste/manure that is discarded into the surrounding environment. They thought the bugs didn’t just remain in the environment – in the soil and crops, in the water that we drink and play in, and in the foods we eat from these animals; rather, they believed the bugs transferred to the human population, making us sick or even killing us. But they lacked was the scientific proof.

Until this summer, when two landmark studies were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and in the Public Library of Science that confirmed their suspicions. The JAMA study looked at the incidence of MRSA in communities near factory farms and fields fertilized with manure from those farms. They found an increased incidence of MRSA infections in those nearby populations compared to communities not near factory farms. The PLOS study compared workers on factory farms to workers on traditional farms (where antibiotics aren’t used) and found significant amounts of livestock-associated MRSA (LA-MRSA) only on workers from the factory farms.

The JAMA study tells us that MRSA flows from the animals and the factory farm environment to nearby communities. The PLOS study tells us something more disturbing – it tell us there’s a new strain of MRSA out there, which they call LA-MRSA, that is being churned out by these factory farms. A new strain of MRSA means it’s resistant to more drugs than just methicillin and therefore it’s harder to treat.

Here’s how it works. Those billions of food producing animals mentioned above live their lives in confined conditions like sardines in a can. They are shot up with antibiotics to make them grow bigger and faster, and to prevent an outbreak of disease which is made more likely by the crowded conditions they’re forced to live in. The animals stand in their feces/manure. When they are slaughtered their meat is often contaminated with the bugs that live in their feces. To dispose of the tons of manure from the animal pens it’s spread over the soil and crops in nearby fields. Once there, it leaches into surface and groundwater. The farm workers, the manure, the soil, the crops, the water, and the insects and animals that feed off these things ALL act as carriers of the bugs, bringing them to our communities. And that’s exactly what the JAMA and PLOS studies showed.

The big picture is this: Old MacDonald no longer has a farm. Food production in this century has been taken over by large industrial concerns for the same reason that the production of cars, steel, and oil became dominated by giant corporations last century – there’s just no other way to keep up with the growing demand.  We have entered into a new age of food production and along with it we have given rise to a Third Wave of MRSA that if left unchecked has the potential to outstrip both the hospital and the community as a source of the pathogen.


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