Nicholas Kristof's Op Ed piece Our Pigs, Our Food, Our Health, which appeared in the New York Times on March 11, is a frightening look at the possibility of hog-to-human transmission of MRSA, a particularly virulent kind of antibiotic resistant staph infection that's been an ongoing problem around the world. Mr. Kristof tells the story of Dr. Tom Anderson, an Indiana doctor who'd seen what seemed to be a "phenomenal" number of MRSA infections among the patients in his small-town practice (more than 50 people were treated, in a town with a population of 500). The doctor had started to believe that the nearby industrialized hog production facility was responsible for the infections.
Mr. Kristof (pictured) points out that Dr. Anderson was ready to be the whistle blower on the connection between the hog facility and his patients, but he died before he had the chance. And, too, local public health officials had not tracked Dr. Anderson's patients. But Mr. Kristof has tracked MRSA, and refs a number of studies that document hogs and humans being infected with the same strain of MRSA, including an American study done in Iowa, which is the number-one hog producing state in the US. He writes that he chose to publish the Op Ed because The larger question is whether we as a nation have moved to a model of agriculture that produces cheap bacon but risks the health of all of us. And the evidence, while far from conclusive, is growing that the answer is yes.
Mr. Kristof also points out that The vast majority of pork is safe, and there is no proven case of transmission of MRSA from eating pork. I’ll still offer my kids B.L.T.’s — but I’ll scrub my hands carefully after handling raw pork.
House Ag Committee Members Query CDC About MRSA--More Than A Year Ago
Here's the thing. Public Health officials--from the CDC, the FDA, and at the local level--have known about the possibility of animal-to-human MRSA transmission for a long time. And Our Elected Officials have known about it for quite a while, too. More than a year ago, on February 4, 2008, House Ag committee members, including Chair Collin Peterson (MN), Rep. Leonard Bowell (IA), Rep. Bob Goodlatte (VA), as well as former Rep. Robin Hayes (NC) sent a letter to then-CDC head Dr. Julie Gerberding requesting information on animal-to-human MRSA, and asked for guidance on how to spin this for both worried constituents and producers. Dr. Gerberding responded with a letter on Feb. 11, that cited all the studies to date, and pointed out that no MRSA transmission had yet occurred from eating meat from an infected animal.
But due to Mr. Kristoff's Op Ed, the pork producers' info spin machine now has to go into overdrive. Mr. Kristof closed his column with this: So what’s going on here, and where do these antibiotic-resistant infections come from? Probably from the routine use — make that the insane overuse — of antibiotics in livestock feed. This is a system that may help breed virulent “superbugs” that pose a public health threat to us all. That’ll be the focus of my next column, on Sunday.
Ob Fo has received a flurry of e mails about MRSA, and from those who work in Public Health, and those who work on Capitol Hill, because despite his careful reporting, Mr. Kristof's close look at infectious disease and animals could well crush pork sales among worried consumers, in the same way peanut butter has become a food product that has gone off the must-have lists of millions of consumers. The most interesting e mail that was leaked to Ob Fo is the one reprinted below, which comes off a CDC listserv on the day after Mr. Kristof's Op Ed appeared, and went out wide. In it, Liz Wagstrom, the head veterinarian for the biggest national pork lobby group, the National Pork Board, e mails the CDC, wondering how to properly spin Mr. Kristof's article--and the one coming up on Sunday--in order to coordinate a response to quell public panic.
Now, it has to be asked: What's the incredible conflict of interest here, the incredible potential for the cover up of information, if the National Pork Board vet is getting in on spinning the CDC/Public Health response to Mr. Kristof? Here's the email, and Ob Fo has added the bolding for emphasis:
From: NASPHV Group on behalf of Liz Wagstrom
Sent: Thu 3/12/2009 9:15 AM
Subject: Re: Our Pigs, Our Food, Our Health
....attached is a letter that CDC wrote to the House Agriculture Committee on the impact of MRSA in pigs/pork on the US epidemic. Below is a link to MRSA info on our website, including a consumer focused fact sheet. In addition, AVMA also has a fact sheet that I have pasted the link to below. I expect that Sunday’s article will be worse, and we are putting together a response. Peter Davies (XXXXX@umn.edu) at the University of Minnesota has been leading several research trials for us and is a good resource if you would like to contact him.
Liz Wagstrom, DVM, MS, DACVPM
Assistant Vice President, Science and Technology
National Pork Board
1776 NW 114th Street
Clive, IA 50325
Also, the lead vet for the State of Illinois (a large pork-producing state) Connie Austin, was one of many other vets who queried the CDC listserv, and she, also, implies that she needs to spin Mr. Kristof's story for the pork industry, whom she refers to as "our Ag partners." She even refs Mr. Kristof's comment about scrubbing his hands. Ob Fo has added bold for emphasis, again:
From: NASPHV Group [mailto:XXXXX.CDC.
Sent: Thursday, March 12, 2009 10:35 AM
Subject: Re: Our Pigs, Our Food, Our Health
Has anyone developed a response for this, like CDC or USDA that we can pattern our response on so we have a similar message in public health, we are already getting inquiries about this and I imagine our Ag partners will be coming up with their response as well. The hand washing after handling raw meat...Swine farmers should practice hand hygiene after handling swine or working in swine buildings.
*Tom Laskawy takes a critical look at the Pork Industry's response to Mr. Kristof's Op Ed here.
*Related: Part II on Kristof and Hog-to-Human MRSA is here.