Tag Archives: antibiotics

Forks Over Knives Review

23 May

I’ve been catching up so far this summer on my Netflix instant queue, including watching some of my backlog of food-oriented documentaries, so expect occasional reviews in the coming months (and feel free to make a request if there’s a movie you’re thinking about seeing but want to know whether it’s worth your time). Up today? documentary about the vegan diet Forks Over Knives.

The basics

The documentary focuses specifically on the relationship between dietary choices and health — by which I mean both daily levels of comfort, but also chronic illness. In examining the connection between the consumptions of meat and dairy products and serious conditions like cancers, heart disease, and of course, obesity, the film explores and ultimately, advocates for the benefits of a whole-foods, plant-based diet (yes, by which they mean vegan).

What I liked

I particularly enjoyed that, despite the fact that they were refering to a dietary plan with a name — vegan — the doctors and filmmakers refrained from calling it such. This suggests, first, a flexibility on the part of those advocating for this diet. They did mention several times that reducing or minimizing the consumption of animal products was the goal.

And they also were careful to clarify the whole foods part of the dietary plan several times — that is, they were not suggesting a sharp increase in tofu or other meat substitutes, but rather a diet, focused on plants that were cooked but minimally processed, if at all.

What I learned

A lot of the health connections between meat and chronic disease were not a mystery to me (though I know they would be to some audiences) but the research in the film relied on international dietary models to form the basis of comparison, and I hadn’t heard much of that. Since science tends to be (rightly) focused on proving the causal connection between diet and health, American medicine doesn’t often look to other countries to see what might be different elsewhere, both in terms of what we eat and how it supports our body’s functions.

One especially striking statistic was this: the average annual number of prostate cancer — a disease causally linked to overconsumption of red meat — diagnoses in Japan is 18, compared to the American average of 16,000.

I also learned that rat-based studies have found an inverse relationship between diet and cancer tumor growth. That is, rats fed a diet high in red meat protein experienced growth in cancerous tumors. But when those same rats were fed a plant-based diet, they experienced a reduction in tumor size.

All of this is to say that the arguments for fueling our bodies with plant food, rather than animal food, is compelling. Not only in terms of avoiding serious illness, but also in terms of what works best for our bodies. (The film profiled several high-performance vegan athletes including professional triathletes and an MMA fighter!)

What was missing

When the film was over, I went back and checked what year it was released and was surprised to find that it was just 2011. I remembered it being recent, but after viewing the documentary, I wondered if I had been wrong. Because the information — but more than that, the perspective — seems dated.

I kept waiting for the point when the narrator and filmmaker, or the doctors who were at the center of the film, would discuss non-industrially produced animal products, and that moment never came, despite the fact that the ills of animal foods, according to the research, was mostly focused on the presence of hormones and steroids.

The notion of organic dairy and grass-fed meat are addressed on the film’s website, but not in great enough detail for me to be able to discern whether I believe the information is accurate. The registered dietician on that site writes that “Even organically produced dairy contain naturally occurring steroids and hormones, which can promote cancer growth,” but that is the extent of the detail. She goes on to note that there is no significant nutritional difference between grass-fed and grain-fed meat (which is true) but doesn’t address the notion that grass-fed meat is absent much of the fat and therefore, cholesterol of grain-fed meat, and is also absent synthetic chemicals, toxins, antibiotics, etc.

If the film addressed these ideas, and had the research to suggest that it would be better to reduce or eliminate meat than to simply eat antibiotic-free, pasture-raised meat, I could accept that. I wouldn’t eat that way, but at least I would know where they stood. But for a film made in 2011 to ignore the alternatives completely seemed strange to me.

The verdict?

Overall, some interesting info, but a pretty snooze-worthy approach to documentary storytelling with not much new for a reasonably-informed food advocate. Watch if you’re interested in learning more about a plant-based diet, and the science therein. But if you want an engaging film about the dangers of the western diet, try Supersize Me instead.

If you’ve seen Forks Over Knives, or have some perspective on the dietary plan, I’d love to hear what you think! Leave a comment and share your thoughts below.

FDA Restricts Agricultural Antibiotics

13 Apr

I had originally planned to make a pink slime video post for today, but then some big news came from the FDA that seemed important to share right away. I promise to give you all the info you need on why pink slime is NOT real beef next week…

But for today, the FDA has just announced it will now require that all agricultural antibiotics are administered by veterinary prescription. This is big news, but doesn’t fully eliminate the issues of antibiotic ag. Let’s break it down.

The good news is: a prescription requirement means that the farmers or ranchers will have to establish proof of a sick animal in need of treatment before any medication can be given. This means no more antibiotics used for growth or preventative measures.

This is especially pertinent just on the heels of a recent study revealing the presence of previously-banned antibiotics in poultry products. Requiring prescriptions means, overall, a much tighter antibiotic leash on the industry.

I also imagine (hope?) that disallowing antibiotics for preventative measures will necessarily lead to better living conditions for animals on factory farms. If animals continue to live in the same conditions and can only be treated when ill, producers will see a much higher rate of sick animals, and if nothing else, that’s bad for the bottom line. This change may take awhile to take full effect, but we can look forward to it, I hope.

Now, there are still some big problems that this change will not solve.

First, and foremost, most antibiotics can still be used. And as someone who believes our livestock animals should, in ideal living conditions, need almost zero antibiotics, I’d like to see that overall number go way down, and this change will not necessarily accomplish that.

Second, we also feed our livestock animals a lot of other nasty stuff that doesn’t fall into the category of antibiotic. Another recent study revealed the consistent presence of caffeine and arsenic, among other chemicals, in poultry byproducts. These ingredients don’t come from antibiotics — they come from chicken feed. A whole ‘nother class to be addressed in the future.

So while this development isn’t perfect or comprehensive, it is a major step forward in shifting away from the overuse of antibiotics in our current livestock production system.

Superbugs Transferring From Animals to Humans

24 Feb

This week’s food news included a fairly major discovery in the arena of antibiotic use in modern industrial agriculture. Really, I wanted to write about this story,  not because I have much more to say on the topic than what the science itself demonstrates, but because I thought many people may not have yet heard the news.

Because I almost didn’t.

Let’s start with the basics: a study published in the journal of the American Society of Microbiology this week “strongly supports” (that’s scientist-speak for “we are sure this is happening”) that Staph infections originating as human strains have moved from human to livestock animal, have mutated in the animal as a result of its exposure to high-dose antibiotics — and then are transferring back to humans.

This is frightening for several reasons:

First, it suggests that a (relatively) harmless strain of a human infection is being made harmful while in its host animal, because the animal is being fed high and consistent doses of antibiotics. Second, because the study found this strain of staph in more than half of all the meat it tested.

And finally, because the study found that the means of transferrance from animal back to human was not meat consumption. It was livestock interaction — coming into contact with the livestock animals, or then coming into contact with a human who has had such contact.

The same way you get a cold infection.

Now, the reason this is such an important revelation, and the reason why I almost missed the importance of this story. For some reason, many of the headlines regarding the study announced something like: “How Using Antibiotics in Animal Feed Creates Superbugs,” or “How Pigs on Antibiotics are Making Superbugs Stronger.” Many pro-vegetarian sites inaccurately labeled the headline as a proclamation of fact that 50% of all meat in the U.S. contains staph.

When I saw those headlines, I shrugged and thought, well, yeah. We’ve known this for a while. How is this news?

So I very nearly missed the new information here about how the genes are mutating, and more importantly, how they are being transferred back to humans. But the big deal is that these superbugs can be spread from more than just consumption.

Because it means that, not only might we be exposed to these mutated, antibiotic-resistant staph infections simply by coming into physical contact with other people.

We might also be getting it from our “antibiotic-free” meat. If two farmers from the same region, say, come into contact with each other — one raises his animals without antibiotics, and one raises animals carrying the mutated staph — they could pass the infection between each other, and then the antibiotic-free farmer could give that infection to his animals simply through daily contact.

Before you start thinking that sounds like crazy-person conspiracy thinking, ask yourself this: is it really out of the realm of possibility for two hog farmers to shake hands? Have you never seen two farmers do this at a market — and then shake hands with you?

Some serious action needs to be taken against industrial agriculture, as evidence mounts that superbugs, along with superweeds and other genetically-modified joys, are not regulating themselves to the confines of industrial products. If I can’t know that my antibiotic-free meat is without mutated staph, or that my organic produce isn’t tainted with pesticide, how am I being allowed to make free, informed choices as a consumer?

What’s Coming for Food in 2012?

10 Jan

Welcome to 2012, We*Meat*Again! Sorry for my lapse in posting, all. The holiday hiatus was more all-consuming than I thought it would be, and I’ve missed a lot of food news. Rather than try to cover it all, I wanted to catch us up with a post about what I think is coming for the food movement over the course of the next year. There is both good and bad news, and in some ways, the two go hand-in-hand.

Food Consciousness Goes Mainstream

I’ve been engaging in a mini personal research project for my book, investigating how and why the average person has become more food conscious, and the answers I’ve been receiving have been remarkable, compelling, and truly important. What I’m hearing is that people like you and me, people with regular jobs and regular incomes, large or small, are finding the many, many ways in which food affects their lives. Their reasons include health & fitness, parenting, economic limitations, social justice concerns, and community investment.

NPR recently had a great piece echoing this on a larger scale, the notion that we’re interested in local food as a source of authenticity in an increasingly out-of-control world. And to me, that’s a very promising trend.

Government Still Behind the Curve

The end of 2011 was mired, for me, by a decision by the FDA that demonstrate what is still wrong with the government’s positions on food policy, especially in terms of changing large-scale corporate agricultural practices to improve health & safety.

Late in the day on December 22, the FDA quietly issued an announcement that it would abandon its pursuit of (again, voluntary) regulation of the use of antibiotics in livestock. The FDA has been pursuing this mission since the late 1970s, and we’ve covered here on the blog before why this is important for the health of consumers. The fact that the FDA backed off this mission can be seen as nothing other than giving in to very real industry pressure, just at the time when more and more meat is contaminated with diseases that are dangerous to our health, after a year of at least one major meat recall per month.

We have more people becoming aware of the importance of a food revolution — and a government still shying away from doing anything about it. So I think…

2012 is the Year of People Power

TIME magazine’s person of the year was The Protester. We’re angry. We’re exhausted. We’re broke. And we are prepared to do something about it. In 2011, we saw floods of people globally taking to the streets to begin to try. Mark Bittman’s column last week was a wonderful examination of the ways in which food is a part of this larger trend. Perhaps 2012 can be the year we harness the power of the local food movement to protest the government’s failures to act on our behalf.

A Victory Against E.Coli

13 Sep

… and, I will add to the title of this post, against the industrial meat industry, who lobbied hard against this victory.

Yesterday, the USDA announced that as of next spring, six additional strains of E. coli will be illegal in meat. This means that selling meat tainted with these strains of E. coli would be a prosecutable offense (especially in the event of illness in a consumer).

I know it may seem difficult to believe that certain forms of E. coli, including the strain that caused the toxic outbreak in Europe this summer, could ever have been legal, but the increased use of antibiotics in meat has contributed to such rapid evolutionary development that it’s tricky for science, let alone government regulation, to keep up with these little buggers.

Which is exactly what makes this an enormous victory though, as Tom Laskawy of Grist points out, the battle against pathogens is far from over. For once, the federal government, and specifically, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen of the Agriculture Dept., are acting in advance of a crisis for the benefit for the public health. When the last E. coli regulations were put in place, it was only after the 1994 Jack in the Box outbreak that killed four children. But the time to make these decisions is before a crisis, as this summer’s European outbreak showed us — that toxic strain of E. coli had not even been documented by food processors until the crisis occurred (and isn’t, for the record, included in this expanded ban).

(Major credit should also, I believe, go to Bill Marler, an attorney whose crusade has been to pursue legal options for pressuring the government to work on food safety. He filed a petititon in June asking that the government move toward this ban by September, or face a suit. Coincidence? I think not.)

Of course, the meat industry is quite unhappy, but I covered why industry can’t be trusted to self-regulate last week. The response from the American Meat Institute (when they first got wind of this possibility) has again taken up two main points: that the regulations would cost industry money, and that they aren’t necessary to begin with, as no significant threat is posed by these new strains. How quickly they forget that the most costly expenditures they face come from crisis-driven national advisories against their product.

I, for one, am encouraged by the fact that the federal government no longer subscribes to the notion that deaths as a result of E. coli are more desirable than the up-front costs of testing for the bacteria, and see this as a sea change moment, when our government made up its mind to place our health and well-being above corporate profits.

Scary Shit: On E. coli & Antibiotic Agriculture

7 Jun

An E.coli outbreak in Germany has, at last count, infected more than 1800 people and killed 22. While the outbreak in Germany has been traced back to tainted bean sprouts, and the United States’ last serious outbreak was connected to spinach, in the midst of a crisis, truth often falls by the wayside. It’s important to remember that the root cause of drug-resistant strains of virulent diseases is not, as European health ministers are saying, “poor hygiene” (people not washing their hands). Poor hygiene is just how the disease gets transmitted from place to place.

Industrial agriculture is the real cause of these outbreaks. The common practices of the global meat production industry that suffocate animals in CAFOs and pollute waterways can also kill humans.

Allow me to explain…

Why do animals consume antibiotics?

Low-level doses of antibiotics are added to the feed or water of livestock animals routinely in CAFOs. The drugs aren’t there to treat any disease; because antibiotics boost immune systems, these low doses actually increase the animal’s growth rate, getting them to slaughter weight faster and with less feed overall. The drugs also stave off potential infections, a very real concern for producers when we remember these animals live in close proximity to their, and other animals’, shit. This is standard industry practice, because it significantly increase the industry’s profit margin.

By standard industry practice I mean that according to the FDA, 29.8 million pounds of antibiotics were administered to livestock animals in 2009. 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are given to livestock. Last year, livestock animals in North Carolina alone received more antibiotics than the entire human population of the country.

So—the animals get antibiotics. What’s the problem with that?

First, the animals’ digestive systems provide a nice safe haven for bacteria to evolve. Soon after consuming antibiotic-laced feed, animals will poop out waste that contains E. coli (which is almost always present in our guts as a normal digestive bacteria). But this E. coli will be a drug-resistant strain, and will in fact have developed resistance to drugs other than the ones in the feed, becoming the frightening multi-drug resistant strains that tend to cause rampant disease outbreaks.

Second, the spread of these super-resistant bacteria is terrifyingly easy and nearly impossible to stop.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can spread from animals to the humans who tend them, and then be passed on to people who have never been anywhere near a chicken house or hog barn (this is where poor hygiene may play a role). But I promise you, a spinach-picker forgetting to wash his hands is not the only way for these bacteria to spread. Since many of them are also airborne, those giant pits of livestock animal manure that are open to the air and sometimes leak into water supplies also carry the bacteria. This means even people living downwind of a hog confinement may be at risk.

This also means that meat isn’t the only source of drug-resistant bacteria. Waterways, airways, one contaminated person shaking hands with a new person, who stocks the vegetables at the grocery store—this is how we end up with tainted spinach and bean sprouts. Animal shit is getting all over our vegetables.

Why is it bad for humans?

Just knowing that our food may have come into contact with animal feces might be enough to make some of us not want to eat it. But the bacteria present in those feces is what we should really be worried about. Those low doses of antibiotics have serious consequences on human health, and we’re seeing those in Germany now.

According to the Johns Hopkins Center for Water and Health, nearly 90 percent of the E. coli found in liquid manure pits associated with hog farms are resistant to drugs. What that means is that if you eat meat tainted with this bacteria, you develop a resistance to those drugs. If the bacteria makes you ill, then the antibiotic treatment for the disease will have no effect on your illness.

And lest you think that this is an overblown health concern, brought on by a tragic fluke outbreak, here’s where the real scary stuff comes in. These disease-resistant bacteria are in our food—they are all over our food. A recently published study in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that 47 percent of the beef, chicken, pork, and turkey sampled from grocery stores in five U.S. cities carried drug-resistant strains of the bacteria that causes staph infection. 96 percent of those samples were resistant to at least one antibiotic, and 52 percent were multi-drug resistant. In April, 55,000 pounds of frozen raw turkey burgers had to be recalled because of a salmonella strain the Centers for Disease Control said is immune to commonly prescribed antibiotics. Drug-resistant infections caused by these and other bacteria are estimated to cost Americans up to $26 billion every year.

Most patients infected with toxic E. coli develop painful diarrhea, vomiting and fever within three days. Children and elderly people are most commonly impacted during these outbreaks, since their immune systems are weakest, but we are all vulnerable. Side effects from E. coli poisoning include kidney failure, blindness, paralysis, and death.

How did we get here?

Perhaps the worst news is that the FDA, tasked with protecting the health of the American populace, has known all this since the late 1970s. In 1977, the agency proposed to withdraw its approval of antibiotic use in the manner described above, saying that feed containing low doses of antibiotics had not been shown to be safe for “widespread, sub-therapeutic use.”

So why didn’t they withdraw their support and stop this train before it started? Politics, of course.

Congress, supported by both the agricultural and pharmaceutical lobbies (who do you think makes all those antibiotics?) stopped the agency in its tracks, and it hasn’t gotten around to banning antibiotics yet. During the 1980s, the FDA commissioned three studies, all of which supported initial concerns about the risks of feeding farm animals antibiotics on a daily basis. The FDA received petitions urging it to act from coalitions of scientific and environmental groups in 1999 and 2005. Such respected bodies as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the World Health Organization all identified low-dose antibiotics as the reason antibiotic-resistant bacteria were proliferating in humans and animals.

Still, nothing has been done. So last month, a coalition of non-profit environmental, public interest and scientific organizations joined forces to file a lawsuit against the FDA to force them to regulate against this specific type of antibiotic use on factory farms. The role of the courts in environmental cases, while controversial, has often been effective so there is a chance this strategy could work. Since one of a judge’s responsibilities is to be a “finder of fact,” judges often determine whether scientific evidence (of which here, there is plenty) is enough to compel government action.

What can you do?

Last week, the editorial page of the New York Times came out against the use of low dose antibiotic feed and in favor of the FDA lawsuit. While unsurprising, given the traditional slant of that page, the editorial is evidence of what I believe to be the most frightening part of this whole mess. We will need systematic change to truly rip this problem out by the root.

The good news is, studies from the University of Georgia suggest that meat raised without antibiotics actually has less overall bacteria. We all can, and must, as consumers, purchase local, organic produce whenever possible. “Antibiotic-free” is an important part of that complex label sustainable meat eaters must navigate. Those are our everyday choices that support the bigger picture, those purchases are our way of communicating on a large scale that we do not want this industrial system anymore, that we believe it is making us sick.

But this will take government intervention, changes in regulations, to turn the industry upside down to reduce the use of antibiotics that cause drug-resistant strains and the pollutive confinement practices that spread them. Contact your representatives and ask them to support Rep. Slaughter’s bill restricting the use of antibiotics. Write the FDA in favor of regulation.

Wash your hands. And wash your veggies.

To learn more, check out my sources…

Read the Beard-award-winning Barry Estabrook on superbugs here.

Grist’s Tom Laskawy on how easy it would be for Germany to happen in the U.S.

An interview with Dr. Michael Berger, expert on the factory farm/superbug connection.


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