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How to start tracing the superbugs in our food back to the farms they come from

How to start tracing the superbugs in our food back to the farms they come from

Picture of William Heisel
(Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The latest outbreak of a drug-resistant bacteria in beef and cheese reminds journalists that the development of antibiotic resistance in animals and humans is now a true health hazard.

What can reporters do about it?

Spend the time explaining to people the connection between antibiotic use in animals, the creation of these superbugs, and then the sickening – or death – of humans as a result. For a model of how to do this, you need look no further than the work of investigative reporter and superbug expert Maryn McKenna. Take 10 minutes to read her piece from Wired last year on a study establishing the link between antibiotic use in animals and illnesses in humans. Or read her fine book, “Plucked,” which details how our appetite for large, cheap cuts of chicken has helped fuel the race between antibiotics and bacteria for supremacy. Bacteria are currently winning on many fronts. Steven Reinberg at HealthDay deftly tackled the issue recently when writing about the new outbreak. He started with the news:

An antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonella is sickening people who eat contaminated beef and unpasteurized soft Mexican cheese, U.S. health officials warned Thursday. First seen in 2017, this bacterial strain has already caused 255 Americans in 32 states to become ill, and many more cases are expected.

And by the third sentence, he made the animal-human connection:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pinpointed the source to contaminated beef from U.S. sources and soft Mexican cheese, which suggests that cattle in both countries are infected. … Giving lots of antibiotics to cattle and people is why antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria develop.

Read through, synthesize, and report for your audience some of the findings from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, through its National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System for Enteric Bacteria (NARMS) initiative, which tracks antibiotic resistance in food-borne bacteria. It does not take a Ph.D. in microbiology to understand this stuff, and you will do your audience a great service by breaking down how these bugs and superbugs threaten people’s health. NARMS does not capture everything, of course. In McKenna’s Wired story last year, she wrote:

As it stands, the NARMS system does a certain amount to identify where foodborne threats to health are coming from — but that data begins at the point at which animals enter the system to become the meat that processors sell. NARMS’ access to slaughterhouses is limited, and the USDA has fought unsuccessfully for years to be allowed to sample meat animals while they’re still on the farms where they were grown.

And that’s where a good piece of investigative reporting could be quite useful.

Reporters in most states work near companies that are part of animal-to-table supply chain. U.S. agencies would like to be able to test animals and meat at different points in that livestock chain. Why can’t they? Because the food industry has kept them out.

So, dig into your local piece of the supply chain. Let’s start with the premise that the food supply chain itself is extremely complex — it’s less a chain than a network. On top of that is a network of regulatory agencies that don’t exactly correspond to the way food travels from farm to table. It’s worth your time to read this recent piece in Eater by Daniela Galarza about how the food inspection system works. Galarza writes:

Though many Americans may think the USDA is the main inspection arm of the U.S. government — due to its more visible logo on meats and organic certifications — it’s actually the FDA that regulates over 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, including dairy, seafood, produce, packaged foods, bottled water, and eggs. (The USDA’s meat grades come out of its marketing branch, which is part of the reason why those blue stamps feature the USDA logo so prominently. The FDA’s logo doesn’t appear on the millions of nutrition labels it approves each year.)

You can take two routes to find out what’s happening in farms in your area. One route is to contact the FDA to find out what, if any, inspections have been done by them and what was found. The FDA does spend time looking for evidence of overuse of antibiotics. It even took a Washington state dairy farm to court and won a decision against the farm for using antibiotics at such high levels that the drugs were showing up in the meat being sold.

The court case provides a nice check list of the kinds of things you can be looking for in doing your reporting. Among them are:

  • Are animals tagged so they can be identified?
  • Does the farm know where the animals came from and where they were later sold?
  • Are records being kept on animals that have been treated with antibiotics or other drugs, including the drug’s name and dosage; the date the drug was given; the veterinarian who wrote the prescription; the name of the person giving the drug; and the date the treated animal was shipped for slaughter?
  • Are the drugs being used in ways that follow FDA labels?
  • Are treated and untreated animals being kept apart?
  • When an animal is treated with drugs, are they then taken off them for long enough to ensure that the drugs are no longer in their tissues?

These are questions you can ask when you pursue your second route for understanding what’s happening on local farms. Contact the farms directly. Do your own mini-survey. How many animals do they have? What antibiotics do they use? When were they last inspected? Were inspectors able to test the animals on the farm for the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria? Also ask them what organizations and lobbying groups they support. You’re trying to get a sense if the farms in your area are part of organizations that have fought against food safety inspections.

I come from a family of farmers and have done a lot of reporting on farms, and so I can speak with  experience in saying that in some cases you will be greeted with polite answers and in others, no answer at all. You are trying to fill in the gaps that are part of the problem that McKenna has identified. The missing pieces of the regulatory puzzle.

Humans are increasingly losing ground against bacteria that survive antibiotics in animals and then go on to do real harm in people. This is an issue that is apolitical and should worry you whether you are a vegan or an omnivore.

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