Maryn McKenna, author of Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA, was in Minneapolis earlier this week to get the word out: There is a bacteria epidemic in world meat supplies, and it’s threatening our health.
You may have heard of MRSA, also known as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus. It’s a bacteria which causes infections in hospitals, and it’s tough to fight, since it’s resistant to many forms of antibiotics. In 2004, a strain called MRSA ST398 was found in both pig farmers and their pigs in the Netherlands; the bacteria had adapted to resist the antibiotics given to the pigs, had spread, and was carried by both the animals and humans who ate infected meat. The bacteria has since spread across Europe, to Canada, and according to an epidemiology professor from the University of Iowa, it’s been found in meat from the Midwest, too.
As McKenna (left) pointed out, 49 percent of pigs and 45 percent of farm workers in a recent sample in Iowa tested positive for carrying MRSA ST398. This means that they carry the bacteria, not that they have become sick — McKenna was quick to mention that while there have been cases of illness due to MRSA ST398 in Europe and Canada, “no one here is ill — that we know of.”
Though McKenna’s presentation of the issue may seem sensationalist, MRSA in our meat supply is indeed a growing problem which threatens our ability to fight infection, according to studies by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Ontario Veterinary College (as cited in Veterinary Microbiology). To address this issue, Chef Brenda Langton of Spoonriver (top left) and the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming invited a select group of active members of the local food community, doctors, and politicians to Spoonriver Monday night to discuss the problem posed by MRSA, alternatives to antibiotic-raised meat, and dine on a meal of antibiotic-free meat prepared by local chefs.
According to Laura Rogers of the Pew Campaign, up to 70 percent of the drugs sold in the US market are used for industrial food production, often on healthy animals, to compensate for poor living conditions. The vast majority of these drugs are similar or identical to the drugs we humans use to treat serious diseases; thus, if animals build a resistance to such drugs and we ingest these resistant bacteria, we develop the same resistances. As Rogers pointed out, we have only a handful of new drugs “in the pipeline” for future release — and many are variations on existing antibiotics already on the market.
Connie Karstens, of Liberty Land & Livestock (above right), said her farm eschews antibiotic use simply because “it’s the right thing to do.” She said her farm spends as much time looking for life in the plants and soil that her livestock eat as they do caring for the animals, because if the plants are healthy, the animals eating them will likely be better off. Mike Braucher (above left) of Sunshine Harvest Farm took this a step further — his farm has never considered antibiotic use because he feeds the meat to his own family, and he prides himself in providing “good, safe, clean food.”
The meal, comprised primarily of lamb from Liberty Land & Livestock and beef and chicken from Sunshine Harvest Farms, featured the flavors of the meat first and foremost. A thinly sliced grass-fed ribeye was presented medium-rare and full of juicy flavor, followed by a slightly charred lamb kebab with grilled onions, zucchini, and a light yogurt sauce. Chef Joe Hatch-Surisook of Sen Yai Sen Lek prepared a perfectly spiced laab gai, the traditional Thai salad of ground chicken, green onions, lime, fish sauce, mint, lemongrass, and toasted rice powder, served with sticky rice and a selection of shredded carrots, cabbage, and fresh cucumber slices. An accompanying vegetable plate provided a bit less of a wow factor, relying on an uninspired sweet red pepper puree to jazz up simple spears of asparagus. Dill-marinated cucumbers and a watermelon radish offered a light tang to an otherwise quietly nutty wild rice-quinoa pilaf. For this event, the meat was the star of the show.
The event made it clear that local drug-free meat is a clear alternative to antibiotic-laden mass-produced products and, with increased accessibility (heck, you can even get Thousand Hills beef at Target nowadays!), the change is relatively easy to make. However, cost must be taken into account.
Rogers’ plan provided a two-pronged approach to dealing with the higher cost of raising antibiotic-free livestock, focusing both on the consumer and production sides of the meat industry. First, she pointed to McDonald’s’ 2004 resolution to “stomp down on antibiotic use,” though she did point out that this resolution may no longer be enforced — a recent search of McDonalds’ website found no mention of antibiotic use. In a competitive market, decisions by huge retailers like McDonald’s, Chipotle, and Bon Appetit Catering signal to the meat industry that they must shift production to meet consumer requirements. Lobbying from politicians, meanwhile — Rogers cited 10 sponsors in the House and 17 in the Senate for the Preservation for Antibiotics in Medical Treatment Act, or PAMTA — can promote alternative production methods.
Denmark’s 1998 ban (note: link is a PDF) on antibiotic use in healthy animals provides a strong model for a US proposal: Cost only increased by about one dollar per pig, or pennies on the pound. A USDA / National Academy of Sciences study estimates the cost in the U.S. to total about $5-10 per year per person. Most of this cost originates from better animal husbandry — giving animals more space and cleaning their pens, so they don’t stand in their own feces for up to 12 hours per day. Meanwhile, allowing animals to have a longer weaning process might help recoup costs, since improving animal health after birthing could make it possible for an animal to carry more young the next time around.
McKenna and Rogers made clear that the prevalence of antibiotic use in farming compensates for poor animal conditions; however, heavy antibiotic use creates a byproduct of drug resistance. With the existing $16-$26 billion estimated in annual added costs to health care as a result of MRSA, both women urged activism — through changing household meat consumption patterns, spreading the word, and legislating at the broader level — to prevent further health risks due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. As Rogers said, “we can’t feed the world with sick animals.”