Cheap Meat

An endangered species?

What’s the hidden cost?

The true cost of cheap meat – beef, chicken, and pork – is slowly making its way into the public consciousness. A recent example comes from the Guardian of London, published last Thursday.

The issue arose because newborn babies in a British hospital were found to have a deadly form of bacteria called Livestock Associated – MRSA (LA-MRSA) in their umbilical cords. This sparked an 18-month investigation by the Guardian to find out why. Their report revealed the following:

(1) This is not hospital-MRSA but a cousin of you will, animal-MRSA. This particular type of MRSA is now well established in UK farms. But how, exactly, it found its way to these babies remains a mystery.

(2) LA-MRSA has contaminated the British food supply. The Guardian tested 100 samples of pork from 4 major supermarkets and found 9 of them contained the MRSA, a result they say is “significant” and “shocking.”

(3) The root problem is our “insatiable demand for cheap meat.”

(4) To meet this demand – which grows with world population – we’ve turned to a different kind of farming altogether: the large-scale industrial farm. Such “farms”: (a) Pack their animals together (b) In unsanitary conditions – in filth (c) Wean piglets early so sows can be quickly impregnated again. The stress of early weaning increases the risk of disease (d) In an effort to prevent disease the use of antibiotics is rampant (e) The use of antibiotics has backfired: we are breeding “superbugs” resistant to the antibiotics – often the same ones we use  – which is fueling a “crisis” that’s part of the global problem of antibiotic resistance.

(5) The solution lies in more natural farming. Better conditions for the animals means less disease and less drugs. Inevitably, consumers will have to pay a higher price for their bacon and eggs and so on because the price of cheap meat is too dear.

The Guardian video report is well worth looking at because it contains undercover footage of the conditions the pigs are raised in. Think cows, chickens, and turkeys as well. You don’t have to be a scientists to understand why this is a hotbed for disease.

So, about that pork chop …

Earlier this month the Obama family changed its diet. It was announced that the Presidential Food Service will serve meats only from sources that follow responsible antibiotic use. (Presumably, though, there’s still this loophole.)

The White House concern is that the overuse of antibiotics in food animals is making us sick. While that’s true, there’s also a deeper story in play here, which the President has so far shied away from.

Others, however, not so much. As F. Scott Fitgerald once observed: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me … They have more money.”

The gutsy filmmaker and RFK Jr.

The gutsy filmmaker with RFK Jr.

And he could add, if he were around today, they make fearless films. A case in point is actress turned aristocrat turned activist Tracy Worcester (nee Ward, and sister of actress Rachel Ward).

Ms. Worcester (pronounced ‘Wuster’) spent 4 years exploring the global pig business, learning where and how pork is produced, and asking who wins and who loses. The result is a gem of a film, Pig Business, which makes its case this way:

(1) On Profit: Worcester uses Smithfield Foods of America as her case study. It’s the world’s largest pork producer (i.e., “farmer”) and processor. With annual sales of almost $12 billion dollars, it processes over 27 million pigs a year, and employs over 52,000 people in 15 countries.

And it slaughters more than hogs. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is featured in the film, explains: “Twenty years ago there were 27,500 independent hog farms in North Carolina. Today they’ve been completely replaced by 2,200 hog factories, 1,600 of them owned or operated by Smithfield Foods.”

(2) On Cruelty: On such a vast industrial scale, pigs are no longer seen as animals but as industrial raw material. “We’ve taken the lessons of industrial systems designed to build cars and machines and applied them to living creatures. It’s infinitely cruel and no civilized society ought to countenance it,” says Tom Garrett of the Animal Welfare Institute. As he speaks, the film shows acts of cruelty – briefly, but long enough – least among them, sows in narrow cages during gestation, too narrow to turn around in.

(3) On Health: We are paying the ultimate hidden price: we are getting sick. Because hogs produce 10 times the fecal waste that humans do, the gases coming out of a swine operation are a “toxic brew” of dust, bacteria, and antibiotics, all mixed together with the upshot that:

“One of the big weaknesses of the system is the heavy dependence on antibiotics, and the fact that causes infections that can spread from animals to humans such as … MRSA. [I]n the Netherlands for example, where the most research has been undertaken, 40% of their pigs are carrying a strain of MRSA that can be passed to humans,” says Richard Young, policy adviser to the highly regarded Soil Association in Britain.

Worcester’s film may be 6 years old but she gets it just right. For example, scientists reported last year that people living closer to industrial pig farms – which includes the workers – were 38 percent more likely to have a MRSA infection than people living farther away. And the people getting MRSA are not like the ones who used to get it; they’re not old and sick, they’re young and healthy.

This map of rural Pennsylvania, where the research was done, tells the story. Each red dot is the home of a person with a MRSA infection. The blue bits are the pig farms.


So the pigs lose. We, the consumer, lose. The small farmer and his family who are run out of business lose. The low wage worker the farmer is replaced with loses. And people living downwind or downstream of the industrial farm lose.

So who wins?

Worcester gets to the heart of this business model in her interview with Professor of Economics and former Central Banker, Bernard Lietaer, who says the driving force is return on investment: “The financial institutions are running the show. The governments are all indebted to them. In the U.S. a third of all contributions to political campaigns are done by the financial institutions. So there’s no chance that they would change the rules of the game.” (My emphasis.)

Tracy Worcerster’s film is important enough in its own right. But its central message also serves as a powerful explanation for how the deep structures of capital determine not just wealth and debt, but, in this case, disease as well. Simply put: International corporations too often produce an inferior product at a cheaper price and, in doing so, kick small business – i.e. families – to the curb, trampling over local communities, wreaking environmental havoc and consequent illness. What Mr. Kennedy describes in the film as the “Walmartization of America.”

As Ms. Worcester frames it in an interview with The Guardian of London: “The story of the pig industry was the epitome of what’s going on in every [industrial] sector.”

Compare, for example, the energy sector, where these scholars, among others, argue that “What is needed for climate stability is a systemic transformation based on … changed … corporate and financial power structures.” In other words, on this view, both MRSA and climate change are themselves symptomatic of a common and structural underlying “disease.”

This smart, elegant film, has met with legal opposition from industry players. Many copies, therefore, are truncated or watered-down. Here’s one, though, that seems to be the complete version.

A Tale of Two Studies

Two studies presented at a national medical conference in Orlando, Florida last month reported findings that suggest its authors might want to talk to one another.

A research team from the Ronald Regan UCLA Medical Center, led by Elise Martin, MD, wanted to know what would happen to hospital infection rates if they stopped using routine contact precautions.

Is the hospital gear doing its job?

Does wearing this gear really prevent the spread of infection?

Precautions are used for patients infected with bad bugs such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), and VRE (vancomycin-resistant enterococcus). They are placed in isolation and healthcare workers (HCW) wear personal protective equipment (PPE); such things as gowns, gloves, masks, and goggles, for each and every patient contact.

There are, however, downsides to the procedure: It’s time consuming for staff to don and doff the gear; patients report feeling that staff avoid them because of the inconvenience of having to put it on; the gear is expensive, for example, it costs the UCLA hospital over $650,000 every year; and besides, say the researchers, there isn’t a lot of data saying this approach works to begin with.

Dr. Elise Martin: The gear makes no difference

Dr. Elise Martin: The gear makes no difference.

So to find out if the effort is worth it, Dr. Martin and her colleagues simply suspended the contact precautions from July through to December last year, and checked the data to see whether there was any effect on hospital infection rates. The result: No difference; i.e., whether you use the contact precautions or not, the infections rates for MRSA and VRE remained the same!

Oh boy. That’s quite a finding because these precautions are SOP across the country, if not the world. And so her work has become a hot topic in the medical community; for instance, it remains the most read article on Medscape Infectious Disease a week after it was first posted.

But there’s a problem.

At that very same conference in Orlando, a research team from the Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Ohio, led by Myreen Tomas, MD, presented their study on PPE, which looked at it from a different angle; namely, whether or not HCW are using the gear properly, and if not, do they become contaminated as a result, thereby increasing the risk of contaminating their patients.

Dr. Myreen Tomas: We're not using the gear properly

Dr. Myreen Tomas: We’re not using the gear properly.

The Tomas team say their results were “very surprising”: The skin and clothing of HCW became very contaminated during the removal of the gear; for example, when the PPE gloves were contaminated the workers themselves became contaminated 80% of the time, especially their hands, thus increasing the risk of spreading disease throughout the hospital.

Overall, gown and glove contamination resulted in HCW contamination 46% of the time. The problem, Dr. Thomas says, is improper use of the gear, especially when taking it off. For example, the gown should be removed away from the body, not over the head.

When the researchers made sure that the correct procedures were followed the contamination rate dropped dramatically – all the way down to 5%.

In other words, according to this study, contact precautions do work – if they’re done right.

And there’s the rub. Because outside of the controlled environment of a study, where researchers are there to tell the HCW if they’re donning and doffing the equipment properly, the real word is very demanding of their time and those pressures lead to mistakes.

Ironically, it’s those very demands on HCW time that makes the UCLA study so appealing. Because it offers the service provider the promise of more time to do their job which translates into happy employees and satisfied patients.

So imagine:

You’re the CEO of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Your budget’s tight, your staff say they’re overworked and underpaid, your patients say they want more attention from their HCW – and remember there’s a lot more patients without drug-resistant infections than there are with.

Dr. Elise Martin walks into your office and says she has a sure-fire way of taking care of these concerns – be a pioneer, she tells you, and dump the traditional practice of contact precautions.

What do you say to her?

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