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Hidden Dangers of the Meat Industry

Published: May 2, 2011

We Americans enjoy cheap food. When corporations become “farmers” or “ranchers” their economies of scale can produce substantial savings to the consumer in price.

Unfortunately, the industry has prices that are distorted in several ways. The meat we eat has government subsidies distorting its accounting. Large costs to society from in business-as-usual are not factored in, and in fact are sometimes hidden. One such hidden cost, according to a new study from Louisiana State University may be coming to us from staph aureus (SA) infections.

For decades hospitals have had problems with bacteria called staphylococcus aureus (SA). It is a common bacteria that lives on many of us. It is tough and it sometimes causes infections – often of the skin. The penicillins used to work pretty well against it, but resistant strains (which developed in hospitals thanks to sometimes surviving the antibiotics thrown at it) made it tougher to kill. The newer, nastier SA strains are known as methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, for this reason. MRSA has made headlines for the occasionally vicious infections it causes. Tens of thousands of deaths have been reported.

These newer MRSA strains were NOT necessarily acquired in the hospital, and as they show up ever more commonly people have wondered why this is happening.

The mystery may have been solved, and it has to do with how we raise animals for meat.

Lance Price, a professor at LSU noted that people working directly with animals were reportedly picking up SA infections from them. The animals were obviously colonized by resistant bacteria. If the animals harbor these nasty MRSA bugs while alive, one has to wonder what happens when they are slaughtered. Dr. Price certainly did, and when he looked for it in the meat we eat he found it – did he ever – but let us digress a moment.

You do not have to belong to PETA to think that raising animals in concentration camps might be a bad idea. While the meat industry, like all modern enterprises, has potent PR weapons at its disposal, this new study on bacteria on our meat raises issues that will surely not go away without actions taken by people outside the industry e.g. lawmakers and regulators.

Our federal government has pursued policies to keep the cost of corn down, and it is indeed SO cheap that kernels are burned directly in stoves by some to directly heat their homes. While the boondoggle of ethanol from corn boosted its price a bit, the prices are still low enough that corn remains the mainstay of what is fed cattle, pigs, chickens, and even salmon! Almost anything else chosen would cost far more. So instead of raising cattle on grass, as in nature, we put them in feedlots and push corn diets. It’s a troubling practice.

To optimize growth under such conditions antibiotics are used in huge quantities. While US doctors seek to conserve the use of these miracle drugs to prevent the development of resistance; the meat industry sees no such need to be prudent.

Over 70% of the antibiotics used in this country go into animal feed!

Basic biology dictates that doing this WILL turn the guts of these animals into factories producing antibiotic resistant bacteria in stupendous quantities. These antibiotics apparently help prevent disease in animals that are more susceptible, owing to their increased stress in overcrowded conditions. They also seem to help the animals to absorb food more easily, possibly by reducing internal competition from the bacteria in their guts.
It seems inevitable that such resistant strains would find their way into our environment, and past studies have shown that such bacteria are indeed finding their way onto the landscapes near feedlots. This correspondent has long suspected that this industry, with its irresponsible use of these vital drugs, was likely at the root of the increased MRSA infections seen in communities. How was that happening? The jury may still be out, but suspicions are narrowing.

LSU’s Lance Price told Reuters that “Antibiotic resistance is one of the greatest threats to public health we face today.” Ask most doctors and they will agree. The new LSU study showed that almost half the beef, pork and poultry sold in popular grocery stores carried staph aureus. Almost all of them were SA strains resistant to more than one antibiotic. That does not make them MRSA per say but it does make them potentially bad actors.

The USDA does not test meats for SA, which is why this study came as an unhappy surprise. Multi-drug resistant SA strains are decidedly abnormal, by-the-way. The USDA does look out for salmonella, listeria, and E. coli in meats. These bacteria are known to cause illness in foods. Should SA be added to the list? Maybe.
Do steps need to be taken to reduce this in the future? Absolutely. Let’s talk why in part two.