Will Obama’s Food Safety Working Group Address MRSA and the Deeper Issues Facing the Food System? | Civil Eats

Will Obama’s Food Safety Working Group Address MRSA and the Deeper Issues Facing the Food System?


In his weekly address Saturday, President Obama announced that he had put together a “Food Safety Working Group,” whose focus will include fostering communication between federal agencies in order to make sure food safety policies are being enforced, starting with “closing loopholes” that have up to now allowed sick downer cows to make their way into the food system.  The goal, he said, is to ensure that the food we eat — including Sasha’s peanut butter sandwiches — are safe from contamination.

But while the Peanut Corporation of America recall is perhaps one of the largest and most dramatic recalls in our country’s history, the story is not a new one: its part of the continuing saga of food safety SNAFUs in the U.S. I would argue result from the use of band-aids in the food system instead of addressing the root causes of contamination.

According to the New York Times article covering the President’s address on Saturday, around 76 million people take ill after eating contaminated food annually in the U.S., while hundreds of thousands are hospitalized and about 5,000 die.  That is 1/4th of our entire population off work, in bed, recovering from a contaminated meal.

The discussion of MRSA seems an apt segue.  Today, Nicholas Kristof penned his second column this week in the New York Times focusing on the upswing in MRSA in humans, which seems to be stemming from the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in agribusiness pig feed. MRSA is an infection caused by a “superbug,” a bacteria that has developed a resistance to all the drugs we have tried to throw at it.  Pigs seem to be incubating MRSA: research from the University of Minnesota suggests that 25 percent to 39 percent of American hogs carry the bug. (Naomi Starkman reported on the correlation between MRSA and pigs on Civil Eats in January) And as Kristof wrote in his first column on pathogens at factory farms Wednesday, it was hardly a coincidence that around fifty of the inhabitants of a small Indiana town (population 500) near large pig operation facilities were coming down with MRSA — an infection that kills 18,000 annually, more people than die in the U.S. from AIDS.

Unfortunately, beyond being given growth hormones, livestock are kept alive in crowded and unsanitary conditions by being preemptively given a number of drugs in their feed. Without the drugs, the animals would probably die before they made it to your plate.  Therefore, the drugs are effectively shielding a larger problem in the food system: factory farms are too big to produce adequate, safe food.

To understand the sheer amount of drugged animals there are in this country, Kristof’s article states that in North Carolina alone, more antibiotics were given to animals than were administered to every person in the United States in that same period. The bottom line is that overexposure to antibiotics means antibiotic resistance — and Kristof points out that The Infectious Diseases Society of America has declared this a “public health crisis.” It has been proven that land fertilized with the manure of drugged animals has resulted in concentrations of antibiotics in vegetables, so is it so hard to imagine the myriad ways eating the antibiotic-doused livestock could be directly affecting our health over time?

Kristof’s column challenges the new administration to take these issues seriously:

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“So Mr. Obama and Mr. Vilsack, will you line up to curb the use of antibiotics in raising American livestock? That is evidence of an industrial farming system that is broken: for the sake of faster-growing hogs, we’re empowering microbes that endanger our food supply and threaten our lives.”

For food policy advocates, the Food Safety Working Group is cause for a huge sigh of relief.  It appears that food safety was the way to get the public’s attention on the issues facing our food system all along, as its plays right into our inherent ability to respond to fear. Everywhere you look these days the talk is e. coli, salmonella and now MRSA contamination via pigs.  As a result, people are reading labels and questioning the food supply more than ever before.

But the battle for Obama, Vilsack and the Food Safety Working Group will be hard-fought.  Already, the pork lobby is holed up in meeting rooms trying to spin Kristof’s beast of a story.  The good news is that food advocates are not backing down on the pathogens-as-harbinger-of-a-broken-food-system story. U.S. Congresswoman from New York Louise Slaughter plans to reintroduce a bill in the House to ban nontherapeutic use of antibiotics this week.  And on Monday, HBO will air “Death on a Factory Farm,” a documentary exposing the realities of the way animals are treated in massive confinement operations, beamed straight into American living rooms.  Another documentary, Food, Inc., will debut in June — and while it successfully breaks down the problems our food system faces on the whole, food safety is a huge part of that discussion.  A factory producing so-called fixes like ammonia-laced meat filler is shown as the processors’ answer to contaminant-free meat. Another portion of the film features a mother seeking to change food safety laws beginning after the death of her two-year-old son from an e. coli infection following the ingestion of a hamburger at a fast food restaurant.

It is high time we change a system that is not working — the evidence keeps mounting that tweaking the system as it stands will never be enough to ensure eaters are safe; we must fundamentally alter how we bring food to our plate.  As David Murphy wrote on Civil Eats last week, “food safety cannot be cloned, genetically modified, implanted with an electronic chip, medicated or irradiated into being.”  There is no easy answer, but I hope President Obama will stay true to his commitment to bring the heads of federal agencies together, and honestly work to strengthen food safety in America.  We must reconsider — and rethink — the model of farming that has enabled us to produce the cheap food that is making us sick.  The American public is ready, willing, and asking for this change.

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Paula Crossfield is a founder and the Editor-at-large of Civil Eats. She is also a co-founder of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Her reporting has been featured in The Nation, Gastronomica, Index Magazine, The New York Times and more, and she has been a contributing producer at The Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio. An avid cook and gardener, she currently lives in Oakland. Read more >

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  1. I agree, great points. Food safety begins by each of us making informed decision for ourselves. We are ultimately responsible for the safety of what we consume, if we don't know where it's coming from we can't ensure it's safe. When consumers finally wake up to the danger of CAFO meats and quit purchasing them, that's when change will occure. We can't expect the government to make all of our decisions & choices for us. The government has proven that it lacks the character to be looking out for the best interest of the American people. With the lobbyist and corporate power in government, it will never happen.

    This is exactly why I grow some of my own food and only purchase food from a local source that I can visit and see how safely things are produced.
  2. BTW, those antibiotics flushed from CAFO's end up in our water supply as well. I heard recently of a study of municipal water systems that was stopped after the first 200 ALL showed antibiotics in the water. Not only are we breeding MRSA and other superbugs, but by constant exposure to antibiotics, reducing our bodies' own ability to fight infection.
  3. My hope is that the more people are exposed to these horrors the more likely they will be to realize that a plant based diet is an excellent way to align their actions with their values.

    Thanks for posting on this very important topic -
    Go Vegan
  4. Remember, increasing food safety regulations does not equal sustainability. Look at the spinach issues, for example. The food safety measures that have been put into place include the destruction of riparian forests, wetlands, hedgerows, and other non-cultivated habitats surrounding fields. Over 85% of row crops farmers in Monterey County alone (where most of the lettuce is grown in this country) have pulled out many of their vegetative conservation practices such as grassed waterways and vegetated buffers. This spells disaster for wildlife, water quality, air quality, and more.
    Also, NAIS is being propelled as a food safety measure, and I hope you realize the dramatic implications it has on small livestock farmers. We need to think long and hard about the unintended consequences of increasing food safety regulations. They often have a way of rewarding the big companies with the big resources and causing a disadvantage to the small and medium scale ones....

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