Manufacturing MRSA on Our Factory Farms

A federal judge in Denver, Colorado on Tuesday sentenced the two owners of the cantaloupe farm that caused a deadly Listeria outbreak in 2011 to five years probation, six months home detention, and $150,000 each in restitution fees to victims.

As we wrote last November, brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen owned Jensen Farms in Colorado, where they grew the cantaloupes that sickened at least 147 people with Listeria and killed more than 30, making it one of the deadliest foodborne illness outbreaks in U.S. history.

The case has been a landmark in foodborne illness litigation, becoming one of the first instances in which food producers faced criminal charges for their contaminated food.

The Factory Farm

The reason this case matters to us is that researchers are now reporting that MRSA, too, is coming to us via the food production system. As we said in our November post: It’s crucial to understand that this is not a case [just] about listeria, it could have been any pathogen that found its way into the nation’s food supply and ended up hurting people. And … there is a rising tide of foodborne illness – the pathogen studied was MRSA – infecting the community because of the new way we are producing our food, the so-called factory farm system.

The US Environmental Protection Agency defines a factory farm- also called a mega-farm or a CAFO – a confined or concentrated animal feeding operation – as a facility that has at least 1,000 pigs, though most are many thousands larger.

Rows of pigs inside the factory farm

By last summer the science caught up with these factory farms and told us they are incubating disease and spreading it to nearby populations. A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association found an increased incidence of MRSA infections in populations close to factory farms compared to communities not near to them. And a study published in the Public Library of Science 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.

And now it’s being reported that a third study, due out in next month’s Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, concludes there’s almost three times the risk of carrying MRSA if you live within one mile of a farm housing 2,500 or more pigs.

In other words, we’re “manufacturing” MRSA because of the way we produce our food. The workers themselves become carriers as do people in nearby communities. And here’s the thing: when any of these people get sick they go to hospitals where they carry and can spread these new strains of MRSA – they bring them from the farms to the cities.

So what does the future hold? As we wrote last November:

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 [LA-MRSA] that if left unchecked has the potential to outstrip both the hospital  [the First Wave] and the community[the Second Wave] as a source of the pathogen.

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