Column: Pathogens in Our Pork

Publication: New York Times

Author: Nicholas Kristof


03/15/2009 - We don’t add antibiotics to baby food and Cocoa Puffs so that children get fewer ear infections. That’s because we understand that the overuse of antibiotics is already creating “superbugs” resistant to medication.

Yet we continue to allow agribusiness companies to add antibiotics to animal feed so that piglets stay healthy and don’t get ear infections. Seventy percent of all antibiotics in the United States go to healthy livestock, according to a careful study by the Union of Concerned Scientists — and that’s one reason we’re seeing the rise of pathogens that defy antibiotics.

These dangerous pathogens are now even in our food supply. Five out of 90 samples of retail pork in Louisiana tested positive for MRSA — an antibiotic-resistant staph infection — according to a peer-reviewed study published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology last year. And a recent study of retail meats in the Washington, D.C., area found MRSA in one pork sample, out of 300, according to Jianghong Meng, the University of Maryland scholar who conducted the study.

Regardless of whether the bacteria came from the pigs or from humans who handled the meat, the results should sound an alarm bell, for MRSA already kills more than 18,000 Americans annually, more than AIDS does.

MRSA (pronounced “mersa”) stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. People often get it from hospitals, but as I wrote in my last column, a new strain called ST398 is emerging and seems to find a reservoir in modern hog farms. Research by Peter Davies of the University of Minnesota suggests that 25 percent to 39 percent of American hogs carry MRSA.



“We don’t give antibiotics to healthy humans,” said Robert Martin, who led a Pew Commission on industrial farming that examined antibiotic use. “So why give them to healthy animals just so we can keep them in crowded and unsanitary conditions?” …

Read full column Pathogens in Our Pork on The New York Times Web site.

View study by Union of Concerned Scientists.

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