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Obama to Superbugs: We're Watching You
The president’s executive order is meant to address the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. So why doesn’t it tackle one of the main culprits: factory farms?

Antibiotic-resistant microbes, strains of bacteria that fight off drugs, are a serious problem. Two million people a year in the United States get sick with those so-called superbugs, and at least 23,000 of them die. Yesterday President Obama signed an executive order to begin addressing this growing public health issue.

Under the new order, a task force led by the departments of health and human services, defense, and agriculture will increase disease surveillance, provide funds for companies to create new drugs, and develop a national system to track superbug outbreaks (like that little salmonella incident we had last year). The government also put a $20 million prize on the table for a quick test to identify antibiotic-resistant infections.

The researchers, government scientists, and industry reps who comprise the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology also released a 65-page report yesterday, saying that antibiotic resistance is now a crisis. “This represents a major elevation of the issue,” John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said at a press conference.

This isn’t the first time a government agency has sounded the alarm. Last year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report concluding that we won’t have any drugs left to effectively fight illnesses if antibiotic-resistance keeps growing. The CDC report specifically singled out the problem of administering antibiotics to animals as a source of the crisis.

More than 70 percent of the drugs administered in the United States go to livestock. We give our animals six times more antibiotics than Norway or Denmark, the New York Times reports. And we don’t do it just to keep the animals healthy, either. Farmers feed antibiotics to livestock mainly to make them grow faster and prevent infection in overcrowded conditions. When those drugs are overused, bacteria in the guts of chicken, pigs, and cattle can evolve a resistance to them. Those super bacteria can then work their way into human bodies (see “You Want Superbugs with That?”).

But the government didn’t specifically address this widespread agriculture practice yesterday. Although the new executive order will increase surveillance (meaning officials will keep a closer eye on outbreaks when they occur), that’s not enough, says Mae Wu, a health attorney with NRDC (which publishes OnEarth). “They take a wait-and-see approach.” We’re already seeing the problems, she says, so why wait?

Others who contributed to the report, including Allan Coukell, the senior director for drugs and medical devices at the Pew Charitable Trusts, say it’s still an important step. “We’ve been like a frog in the pot as the water heats up,” he told the New York Times. “Now the administration is saying we can’t keep going like this, that we have to tackle this crisis, and here’s a road map.” Superbugs, it’s time to hit the road.

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image of Susan Cosier
Susan Cosier is OnEarth's Midwest correspondent. She previously worked at Audubon magazine, and has written for a number of science and environmental publications. She's a graduate of New York University's science journalism program. MORE STORIES ➔
Plastics. Think About It. (After Seeing This, You Might Not Be Able to Stop)
Morning, sunshine! Open your eyes and update your brain with these #greenreads.

If it seems like we're obsessed with plastic this week at OnEarth (see this and this), it might have something to do with the fact that the stuff is all around us, from litter on the side of the road to the giant floating garbage patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (and, uncomfortably, even inside our bodies). Now here comes a new documentary by filmmaker Angela Sun providing further evidence that the Plastic Paradise we've created isn't exactly good for us—or the world. (Even if it sure looks cool on film sometimes—don't be fooled!)

Other things to know this morning:

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which today keeps nearly 110 million acres safe and pristine. In celebration of the act’s past, present, and future, here are 10 wilderness areas protected by the legislation, 10 reasons why the act was “one of the best ideas ever,” and thoughts on what we can do to make sure the law stays strong. Enjoy!

When is antibiotic-free chicken not antibiotic-free (but still OK for companies to say so on the label)? When the chicken was injected with drugs before it hatched. Now Perdue Farms, the third-largest chicken producer in the United States, says it has stopped doping its eggs, meaning the company has, in its words, "reached the point where 95 percent of our chickens never receive any human antibiotics, and the remainder receive them only for a few days when prescribed by a veterinarian." If Perdue can do it, what's to stop all the others from doing the same?

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program says 21 species of bottom-dwelling fish are now good to eat thanks to more than a decade worth of efforts to rebuild the population. Who wants rockfish?

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Blue Whales in the Way, Court Blows ABX Decision, Radioactive Snow Monkeys
Our top picks: today's environmental news and best #greenreads.

Take your medicine (oh, what’s the point...): The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is under no obligation to ban the practice of administering antibiotics to healthy livestock as a way of promoting growth—even though study after study shows that the practice is creating drug-resistant superbugs (see "You Want Superbugs With That?"). The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has even argued that overuse of antibiotics could lead to "the next pandemic.” NRDC, which publishes OnEarth, had sued the FDA in an effort to force the agency to act, but the court decided that continued dilly-dallying is A-OK. In his dissenting opinion, Judge Robert Katzmann summed it up: “Today’s decision allows the FDA to openly declare that a particular animal drug is unsafe, but then refuse to withdraw approval of that drug.” (Really, great work everybody…) Salon

Quitting coal (kind of): China is considering a mandatory cap on coal combustion as a way to cut carbon pollution. (Woo, go China!!) But some worry that because the limit would be an adjustable ceiling based on need, the "cap" isn’t really a cap and would allow many more years of coal consumption from the world’s largest CO2 emitter. New York Times

The lepidopterist’s cookbook: Let’s bomb America...with native milkweed seeds! A recent study confirms that in order to save the monarch migration—y’know when billions of butterflies swarm North America—we’re going to need to grow a lot more milkweed, the only plant these beauties lay their eggs on. Good thing making clay bombs full of seed is easy (and fun). OnEarth

Traffic jam!: There aren’t many things that can kill a 190-ton blue whale, but a collision with a 220,000-ton cargo ship sure can. Unfortunately, a new study of satellite data reveals that blue whale hotspots near Los Angeles and San Francisco closely overlap with shipping routes. Simply moving the shipping lanes would put the endangered marine mammals in the clear. Easy breezy! Oh, wait … the spot scientists want to move the shipping routes to is currently occupied by the U.S Navy. (And you know how stubborn they can be when it comes to whales.) The Dodo

It’s in the blood: Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant blew three years ago, and we’re still learning about its effect on the environment. Scientists have found that wild Japanese macaques—those pink-faced monkeys who like to hang out in hot springs—have lower red and white blood cell counts as a result of the radiation emitted from Fukushima. So far, the lack of cells doesn’t seem to cause the monkeys immediate harm, but scientists say it might be weakening their immune systems. Los Angeles Times

Cool, cool water: Satellite surveys reveal that the Colorado River basin has lost 53 million acre-feet of water—or 17 trillion gallons—since 2004. That would be enough to supply more than 50 million homes for a year, and most of the groundwater can’t be replenished. In other words, California and the rest of the West are burning through the emergency water supply at an alarming rate. Associated Press


Extreme close-up: We got a little buggy with yesterday’s mayfly invasion, and we’re doing it again today. Why? Because photographer Yudy Sauw’s close-up shots of insect faces that’s why! (And because one of them looks like the giant evil bunny in Donnie Darko.) Have a great weekend! Guardian


Study Gives Hope of Adaptation to Climate Change New York Times

If It's Raining, NYC’s Raw Sewage Is Probably Pouring into the Waterways Newsweek

Under Water: the EPA’s Struggle to Combat Pollution ProPublica

Tips: @OnEarthMag (tag it #greenreads)

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Some Ants Make Bad Moms, EPA Seeks Fracking Recipes, Flies—Now Even Grosser!
Our top picks: today's environmental news and best #greenreads.

Call the swat team: How do antibiotic-resistant bacteria find their way from overly medicated livestock at a factory farm to infecting humans? Well, the superbugs can travel via food or farmer or agriculture runoff or maybe ... houseflies. Vox

Secret sauces: The Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday that it will be taking preliminary steps under the Toxic Substances Control Act to find out what fracking companies are injecting into the ground—and possibly, into our water supplies. Bloomberg, Huffington Post

Tag team: In the Nordhaus family, brother Bill is the economist and academic theorist while brother Bob is the legal mind and political pragmatist. The predilections of two siblings might not usually interest you, but these two bros from New Mexico have been putting their heads together for almost 40 years to try to figure out the best way to fight climate change. (And people are listening.) New York Times

Atlantis: When Folsom Dam created California's ninth biggest reservoir in 1955, its floodwaters swallowed the historic gold-mining town of Mormon Island. But now as a mega-drought sucks the state dry, the town rises again! High Country News

Drinking kills: About half of China's lakes and rivers are polluted so badly that the water is "unsafe for human consumption or contact." But at least the Chinese government has finally acknowledged the existence of 450 "cancer villages" thought to be caused by the pollution (!). In related news, a recent study has found high concentrations of antibiotics (68 different kinds in all) and other medicines in China's surface water. The Orlando Star, The Shanghaiist

Like a bat outta hell: What happens when a Russian biologist tells Vladimir Putin not to destroy bat caves while constructing illegal palaces? He has to flee the country, of course (see "Bad Dad to Mother Russia"). NewScientist


Your mama's so weird, she ... : My mom is strange. I bet yours is, too. But things could be worse. She could be a quasi-cannabilistic ant. LiveScience


Obama Administration Limits on Soot Pollution Upheld by Appeals Court, Los Angeles Times

Read more here:

Federal Government Failed to Inspect Higher Risk Oil Wells, Associated Press

Why Are So Many White Men Trying to Save the Planet Without the Rest of Us? The Guardian

Drought Tech: How Solar Desalination Could Help Parched Farms KQED

What Dust Does The Last Word on Nothing

Tips: @OnEarthMag (tag it #greenreads)

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Firefighters Fight Flame Retardants, BYOBag, Bye-bye Bangladesh
Our top picks: today's environmental news and best #greenreads.

The rising tide: The world’s top climate scientists are scheduled to release the next IPCC report this Sunday, and in anticipation of that comes a two-parter on the threat of rising sea levels. The first story looks at the issue from the perspective of people living in Bangladesh, the country most considered to top the List of The Sincerely Screwed. The second part breaks down the ways climate change and rising seas will affect other places, including Fiji, Greenland, and our very own Miami. New York Times

Up in smoke: Firefighters across the nation protested flame retardants and other toxic chemicals in household products by lining public spaces with empty work boots. The boots represent firefighters who have died with their "boots off," succumbing to cancer. Firefighters are exposed to a disproportionately high volume of nasty compounds in the smoke of burning homes and suffer from high rates of cancer and Parkinson’s disease. Worst of all, research shows some of those highly toxic flame retardants aren't terribly effective at thwarting fires. Huffington Post

Climate race: Imagine, if you will, that all the species in the world are running on a treadmill. As their environment changes, the treadmill’s incline rises and the animals must use more energy to keep up. (Remember yesterday’s shrinking salamanders?) But scientists say the threat of climate change is dynamic, so the incline wouldn't simply go up—it keeps going up. And not every species will be equipped with enough reserves to avoid being flung against the wall. FiveThirtyEight

Cold(ish) turkey: The Food and Drug Administration announced this week that 25 out of 26 drug companies have agreed to phase out the use of growth-promoting antibiotics on farm animals. This is partially encouraging, because these drugs cause a serious threat to public health by encouraging the breeding of antibiotic-resistant superbugs (see “The ABX Files”). Unfortunately, the same drugs can still be administered to livestock for a host of other reasons, so many worry the measure will fall way short of accomplishing any meaningful reform. Not to mention, what’s up with that one company (who the FDA wouldn't name) who said no? Los Angeles Times

Checked mating: After an oil tanker oopsy-daisy-ed 168,000 gallons of fuel oil into the Gulf of Mexico over the weekend, scientists are trying to determine just how bad the effect may be on local wildlife. The Houston Audubon Society has already documented many oiled birds. Shrimp, oysters, blue crab, and menhaden all stand to get hit rather hard, too, as the spill occurred just as breeding season kicked off for many of the species. Coincidentally, a report on the Deepwater Horizon spill's impact on wildlife came out earlier this week showing that the oil caused heart defects in certain species of fish. But scientists worry that the fuel oil spilled in Galveston may be even worse than Deepwater Horizon's crude, due to its tendency to linger in the environment. Texas Tribune

Give a dime: Grocery shoppers in New York City may soon have to shell out ten cents per plastic or paper bag. The measure is meant to encourage people to bring (or buy) their own re-useable bags in order to cut down on the amount of plastic winding up in our environment. As Lilly Belanger of the No Impact Project points out, “Plastic bags are not central to our life happiness or health but make an enormous impact on our world.” Associated Press


“Breath”: Can we all just agree that whales, sperm whales in particular, are some of the weirdest living creatures? They’re basically just massive tubes of muscle, and yet they torpedo through the ocean with the grace of a butterfly. Here’s a video of a sperm whale family coming up for air. Go ahead, bask in its bizarre magnificence. The Dodo


Why Don’t We Have a National Park to Protect Native Grasslands? Pacific Standard

Drought Gives One of the West’s Thirstiest Crops an Ironic Boost High Country News

Millennials Don’t Care about Owning Cars, and Car Makers Can’t Figure out Why Fast Company

Tips: @OnEarthMag (tag it #greenreads)

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FDA Just Says 'Yes' to Drugs, a Fight to the Sea Floor, German Cows Go BOOM
Our top picks: today's environmental news and best #greenreads.

Get it together, FDA: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been conducting tests on livestock antibiotic products over the last decade—as you would expect from an agency designed to protect public health. What you wouldn’t expect is that the FDA has done literally nothing since determining that every single one of the products tested poses a risk to human health. OnEarth

H2O 101: The West Virginia chemical spill is still teaching us a lot of lessons. For instance, the revelation that a second chemical, call PPH, was also spilled shows that even extremely focused efforts to monitor water don't catch every threat that passes on through. Of course, we should also hope officials have learned not to trust the word of the company responsible for the spill—since Freedom Industries knew there was a second chemical all along. NPR

Big trouble in little China: A delegation of 31 geologists from 10 nations sets sail this week on a research expedition into the South China Sea. Their mission: find oil and natural gas deposits beneath the seafloor. Some estimate the area, which China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and several other Asian countries all want a piece of, holds as much as 18.7 billion tons of oil and 498 trillion cubic fee of natural gas. China is footing the bill for the operation, the United States has provided the ship, and half the world awaits the results. A big find will no doubt heighten tensions among all those nations involved—which is to say nothing of the environmental risk of extracting the resources, nor the carbon emissions associated with burning them. Quartz

Sticky situation: Remember last year when a pipeline leak allowed 1,400 tons of molasses to pour into a Hawaii harbor and kill more than 26,000 fish and other ocean creatures? Yeah, that sucked. Fortunately, the Aloha State is using the accident to strengthen its policies and emergency plans in the event of future disasters. New legislation would channel any money collected in fines or settlements into a special fund that can only be used toward the restoration of coral reefs. Associated Press

Spin cycle?: Proctor & Gamble has announced that it will remove phosphate from its detergent formulas worldwide. The company removed the chemical from its U.S. detergents back in the 90s, but kept phosphates in the suds in many other countries. This is great news for the environment, because the chemical leads to low oxygen levels, algae blooms, and fish deaths. Some say P&G may simply be reacting to the rising price of phosphate, but anytime a company this big removes a chemical known to be bad for the planet, I’m going to put aside my skepticism (for the moment) and call it a win. Guardian

Lion tamers: Lionfish are an invasive species, thought to be introduced to the Atlantic by the aquarium trade, and they’re tearing apart our coral reef ecosystems. The fish's venomous barbs keep predators at bay while it devours anything it can suck down its gullet. Combine that with the fact that the lionfish reproduces every three to four days (!) and with the fact that it’s marching toward the south Caribbean at a steady click, and you’ll understand why scientists had almost lost all hope for stemming the invasion. Thankfully, new research confirms that you don’t have to completely eradicate the invaders to win the war. Spearing just 75 percent can be enough to allow native fish to rebound. Los Angeles Times


Silent but deadly: Environmentalists are always talking about how the livestock industry produces a lot of greenhouse gas emissions—namely the methane present in cow burps and farts. And yes, that's the detail that always draws skeptical laughs from climate deniers. But hey, the gas emitted from 90 cows just blew the roof off a barn in Germany, killing one of the animals. I’m not making this up. BBC


Accidents Surge as Oil Industry Takes the Train New York Times

Why the Climate Needs Its Own Tea Party Grist

China’s Premier Li Says Governments Should Use New-Energy Cars Bloomberg

Fissures in G.O.P. as Some Conservatives Embraces Renewable Energy New York Times

Tips: @OnEarthMag (tag it #greenreads)

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The ABX Files
Documents reveal that the FDA allows antibiotics in animal feed despite its own studies showing risk to human health.

Thousands of pages of internal documents obtained from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration show that the agency has continued to allow dozens of antibiotics to be used in animal feed over the past decade—even after its own internal studies confirmed that the practice could pose a serious threat to human health.

Public health advocates have been pushing the FDA to crack down on the practice of feeding antibiotics (or ABX) to livestock, which factory farms do in large numbers in order to promote growth and keep their animals from dying in cramped, fetid conditions. The overuse of antibiotics on the farm is connected to the rise of drug-resistant superbugs, which can pass from animals to humans.

Yet the FDA has been slow to take action, and now, the documents obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council (which publishes OnEarth) show that the agency has been even more reckless than previously believed.

From 2001 to 2010, the FDA tested 30 kinds of antibiotics that have been approved for us in animal feed for decades. The products feature varieties of penicillin and tetracycline—antibiotics that are also used in human medicine. Of the 30 products, the agency found that not a single one would pass the standards it requires for approval of new additives today.

Furthermore, 18 of the products the agency tested have a “high risk” of encouraging the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the documents show. Humans can become exposed to these superbugs through vegetable or meat products, as well as through the air, water, dirt, manure, and wildlife. The risk level of the remaining 12 additives is unknown, since the drug manufacturers failed to supply enough information for the FDA investigation.

So, in light of these startling findings, what has the FDA done? Not a damn thing.

The FDA documents, which NRDC obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, come as a stark reminder of the risks associated with feeding antibiotics to livestock. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 23,000 people die each year as a result of infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria. If that’s not scary enough, the continued overuse of antibiotics could render some medicines ineffective at staving off infections, making everyday illnesses and surgeries more dangerous.

And boy, are we overusing these drugs. Approximately 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States are administered to farm animals, most of which aren’t sick. (This is what’s called “nontherapeutic use” of antibiotics.) The result is an ideal setting for a strain of bacteria to evolve and become immune to an antibiotic.

The FDA has known about the risks of antibiotics in livestock since studies were first published in the 1970s, but it has declined to take action—even in the face of a lawsuit from NRDC and court rulings in the group’s favor. At this point, the agency’s only action has been to ask drug manufacturers to voluntarily stop selling them to promote the growth of livestock.

“[The FDA’s] charge is to withdraw approval from drugs that are not shown to be safe, and I think we have a good sense that these drugs are not shown to be safe at this point,” says Avinash Kar, an NRDC staff attorney.

Many countries in Europe have already responded to the emerging health crisis by banning penicillin and tetracycline for use in livestock. The European Union prohibits administering antibiotics to food animals for the purpose of encouraging growth. The FDA, though, has failed to follow its lead.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria survive the onslaught of drugs we throw at them because they are capable of rapid change. Perhaps it’s time the FDA takes a page out of the superbugs' playbook.

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image of Jason Bittel
OnEarth news blogger Jason Bittel contributes to Slate and serves up science for picky eaters on his website, Bittel Me This. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and two tiny wolves. (Note: wolves may be Pomeranians.) MORE STORIES ➔
They’re Feeding WHAT to Cows?
'Poultry litter' is exactly what it sounds like: the filthy stuff scraped off the floor of a chicken coop. Feeding it to cattle (yes, that happens) risks the spread of mad cow disease—yet the FDA has done nothing to stop it.

This show on the Cartoon Network was funny. What cows are eating is not.

Anyone who pays even scant attention to where our food comes from is likely aware that some pretty unsavory things happen between the farm and your fork (see this month’s big story in Rolling Stone, for example). But some of these farming methods are more than just unappetizing: they could be deadly. One practice in particular could allow for the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, the gruesome and fatal neurodegenerative disorder more commonly known as mad cow disease.

The practice in question is feeding what’s known as “poultry litter” to farmed cattle. Poultry litter is the agriculture industry’s term for the detritus that gets scooped off the floors of chicken cages and broiler houses. It’s mainly a combination of feces, feathers, and uneaten chicken feed, but in addition, a typical sample of poultry litter might also contain antibiotics, heavy metals, disease-causing bacteria, and even bits of dead rodents, according to Consumers Union (the policy and action arm of the nonprofit that publishes Consumer Reports).

Aside from the fact that we’re feeding our cows chicken crap, this practice is worrisome because both the excrement and uneaten pellets of chicken chow found in poultry litter can contain beef protein, including ground-up meat and bone meal. Which means—if you can follow the gruesome flow chart here—that cows could be, indirectly, eating each other.

As the U.S. Department of Agriculture has made quite clear, cows really, really shouldn’t be doing that. Meat and bone meal containing infected bovine protein, the USDA says, is the chief culprit behind the spread of mad cow disease. (The closely related illness in humans is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration wisely banned the practice of feeding the remains of dead cows to living ones back in 1997. But the agency has never prohibited feeding those same remains to chickens and other poultry, nor does it currently prohibit feeding poultry litter to cattle. And so, thanks to this ghoulish quirk of our Rube Goldberg-like regulatory mechanism—call it the Feedlot Feedback Loop, or maybe the Feedlot Feedback Loophole—cows are still at risk of consuming the suspect bovine proteins that inspired the 1997 ban in the first place.

“I’ve always been against the feeding of poultry litter back to ruminants [cows and their cud-chewing cousins],” says Linda Detwiler, who served as the USDA’s head of mad cow surveillance from 1996 to 2002 and who has more than 25 years of experience working with the disease. “If there was contamination with the BSE agent—through either spilled feed or feed that passed through undigested—there could be a potential of exposure to cattle.”

Just how much poultry litter actually gets collected, processed, and fed to cows isn’t precisely known. In 1967, the FDA declared that poultry litter could be classified as an “adulterated” form of livestock feed, a designation that effectively prohibited its interstate shipment and greatly curbed its use for such purposes. But in 1980, at the dawning of Reagan-era deregulation, the agency stopped policing its use and ceded the issue of how to handle poultry litter to state agricultural agencies.

Those agencies, alas, haven’t done a very good job of regulating it since then. According to a survey conducted by the Food Animal Concerns Trust, a Chicago-based organization that advocates for the welfare of farm animals, 21 of 32 responding state agencies reported that they neither monitored nor maintained any data on the amount of poultry litter being used as cattle feed in their jurisdictions. The FDA has estimated that between 1 million and 2 million tons of it are fed to U.S. cattle every year.

Aside from the fact that we’re feeding our cows chicken crap, this practice is worrisome because—if you can follow the gruesome flow chart here—it means that cows could be, indirectly, eating each other.

In early 2003, shortly after the first U.S. cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy was discovered in Washington State, the FDA responded to mounting public anxiety by announcing that it would ban the use of poultry litter as cattle feed. But once Big Ag stepped in, the agency suggested a different course of action. There was no need for a permanent ban, the FDA concluded: just a promise by chicken-feed manufacturers that they would leave out the riskiest, most infectious bovine tissues, mainly from brains and spinal cords. (If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because the FDA said yesterday that it is taking a similar voluntary approach to the overuse of antibiotics in livestock, another potential human health risk.) Such promises on poultry litter notwithstanding, Detwiler says risky bovine tissue could still make its way into chicken feed. “The FDA is not requiring all the infectious parts to be [taken] out.”

The FDA did not respond to OnEarth’s requests for comment on this story.

Why does Big Ag want to keep feeding poultry waste to cows? That’s an easy one: It’s plentiful, expensive to dispose of by other means, and relatively rich in protein (however disgusting a form that protein may take). Feeding it to ruminant livestock represents a win-win for beef producers and poultry producers—just not for cows, or for anyone who happens to eat beef and care about its safety.

Which is why in August 2009, more than a dozen national consumer and animal welfare organizations formally petitioned the FDA to put an end to this practice once and for all. They cited recent studies by researchers at Harvard highlighting the risks. They cited bans already in place in a number of countries: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the European Union member states among them. They poked holes in the logic used by the FDA to demonstrate poultry litter’s safety and to justify its continued use. The agency’s self-imposed deadline for responding to the petitioners was February 2010. Those petitioners are still waiting for an answer.

Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, was one of the petition’s signers. He describes the FDA’s lack of a formal response as “appalling.” In a closed-door meeting with agency officials that he attended last summer, he recalls, those officials blamed the delay on the massive backlog of other petitions currently demanding the agency’s attention. When they were reminded of exactly how long—nearly four years—Hansen and others had been waiting for a response, the officials seemed unfazed, Hansen says. Their blasé attitude “makes no sense,” in his words, given that the FDA had already acknowledged the potential hazards of feeding poultry litter to cows when it announced plans to ban the practice back in 2004. (Again, this might sound familiar: it has taken the FDA more than 30 years to act on the well-known risk of antibiotics use in livestock.)

Detwiler, who left the USDA in 2003 and now works as a global consultant on mad cow issues, believes that the FDA’s inactivity reflects a dangerous complacency surrounding the contemporary incidence of the disease. Safeguards put in place after Europe experienced a string of mad cow outbreaks in the 1980s and 1990s have mitigated many risk factors, she said, but that doesn’t mean protective agencies can let their guard down—especially now that new, atypical strains of BSE have entered the picture.

Wait—what’s that? Well, here in the United States, all three cows confirmed to have contracted BSE since 2003 have tested positive for an atypical strain of the disease, as opposed to the more widely studied (and better understood) “typical” strain. USDA officials maintain that atypical BSE findings in cows are actually cause for less concern, not more, because these officials, along with some in the scientific community, believe these atypical strains can only occur spontaneously and are rooted in genetic defects, rather than contaminated feed.

Detwiler, Hansen, and other scientists say there’s simply not enough evidence to support that belief. And it would seem that they’re not alone: the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions that “transmission through feed or the environment cannot be ruled out.” What’s more, Detwiler and Hansen note, recent studies suggest that atypical BSE strains may be more virulent than the typical strain. “We have to be very careful,” Detwiler says. “I think scientists and public officials should point out that we still don’t know all there is to know.”

With only three U.S. cases of BSE-infected cattle detected in the last decade, the USDA claims that our current safeguards are sufficient. But as Hansen notes, the agency tests only one-tenth of one percent of the roughly 35 million U.S. cattle slaughtered annually. Given what we know about the presence of bovine tissue in poultry litter, and given what we don't know about how atypical BSE is contracted, we should at least let caution and prudence offset some of the information gap.

Other countries have banned feeding poultry litter to cows “for quite good reason,” Hansen says. “These diseases don’t go away until you take strong measures.”

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image of Brad Jacobson
Brad Jacobson is an OnEarth contributor, who covers energy, environment, and public health for the magazine. His reporting has appeared elsewhere in The Atlantic, In These Times, Salon, Columbia Journalism Review, Billboard, and other publications. He's also a regular contributor to the award-winning online news magazine AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter. MORE STORIES ➔
FDA Swings and Misses!, Nuke Bomb Power, Fracking Waste as De-Icer? Umm, No Thanks
Our top picks: today's environmental news and best #greenreads.

Pretty please: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration made a big hubbub yesterday by announcing a new plan for limiting excessive antibiotic use in the livestock industry—an attempt, ultimately, to control the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. But a closer look shows that the proposed plan is full of loopholes and hollow gestures, starting with the fact that its relies on voluntary action from pharmaceutical manufacturers. Voluntary...right, when pigs (likely laden with superbugs) fly. CNN, The WeekOnEarth

You’re going to do what now?: In other dispiriting government announcements, the Environmental Protection Agency plans to cut the number of inspections it does nationwide by one-third and reduce civil enforcement cases by 23 percent. The agency reasons that by shrinking its workload, it can better focus on the biggest polluters, which it says will be the most effective way to clean up our air and water. Yeah, about that … environmental organizations tend to disagree, saying the move looks more like a hasty retreat. Los Angeles Times

Bad news bats: A new study suggests climate change could significantly affect bats’ ability to echolocate—the sending out of high-pitch squeaks used to navigate, hunt, and flirt. The scientists believe rising temperatures will change the way their calls penetrate the air, meaning some bats will gain increased communication abilities, while others will be “all but deafened.” FYI: a deaf bat is a dead bat. New Scientist

Thin ice: For at least the last two winters, New York has been using fracking wastewater, or brine, as a de-icer on its roads, where the chemicals then invariably wash off into fields, yards, and water sources. We’d probably never have known about it if it wasn’t for some serious digging on the part of Kate Hudson (no, not that Kate Hudson), a program director for the environmental group Riverkeeper. Thanks to Hudson’s persistence, the state is now working on a bill to ban the practice. WAMC

Move over, methane: Scientists have discovered that there's a new bad kid on the block when it comes to greenhouse gases, one that is 7,000 times more powerful than CO2. It's called perfluorotributylamine—catchy, huh? The synthetic chemical has been used for transistors and capacitors in the electrical industry since the mid-20th century. Luckily, there isn’t much perfluorotributylamine (let's call it PFTBA) in the atmosphere right now, but now that we know of its super warming powers, we should probably stop making and using it—especially since PFTBA is currently unregulated. Guardian

Bombs away!: For the last 20 years, every time you have flicked a switch, you might have been tapping into energy from decommissioned Russian nukes. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States convinced the Russians to turn all that bomb-grade uranium into nuclear fuel and then sell it to our nuclear power plants. Talk about recycling! The idea was definitely a win-win: the Russians got jobs, we got cheap uranium and electricity, and 20,000 bombs worth of nuclear material got rescued from the environment and enterprising terrorists. The more you know! NPR


Through the looking ice: Over Thanksgiving, a lake in Montana froze over so perfectly clear, ice skaters could see straight down to the plants and sticks on the bottom. And this video of the scene is nothing short of surreal. (But if its producers had asked me (and they didn't), I would've swapped the wimpy soundtrack with Foreigner.) Huffington Post


Russia to Boost Military Presence in Arctic as Canada Plots North Pole Claim Guardian

EPA Tells court U.S. Mercury, Toxics Rule Is Legally Justified Reuters

Keystone Foe Added to Obama Inner Circle with Podesta Bloomberg

Japan to Spend $970 Million on Nuclear Soil Store: Report AFP


Tips: @OnEarthMag (tag it #greenreads)

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Weekend Reads: The Death of Antibiotics, When Pipelines Attack, East Coast Is the Cougar Coast?
Five #greenreads to cite during debates with drunk uncles over turkey.

This Is What Happens When a Pipeline Bursts in Your Town
Having a petroleum pipeline in your backyard carries with it certain risks. Most people are aware of that—even if they’ve never truly considered what hazards await in the event of a leak. But as Nora Caplan-Bricker points out, we need look only to the aftermath of the disaster in Mayflower, Arkansas, to understand the hidden price tag attached to any pipeline project. Plummeting property values, environmental devastation, and medical claims are only the beginning. New Republic

Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future
We’ve been playing fast and loose with antibiotics. The more we unnecessarily prescribe them, the more chance we give the microbes to evolve defenses against the medicines. And don’t even get us started on the state of antibiotics in wildlife and farm animals. But what would our world be like without these helpful drugs? According to Maryn Mckenna, author of Superbug, pretty bleak. Without effective antibiotics, we stand to lose the ability to perform intensive-care medicine, kidney dialysis, implantable devices, and a whole suite of intestinal surgeries. Food & Environment Reporting Network

Cougar Town
We’ve grown accustomed to reading about mountain lion attacks in California and British Columbia, but recent sightings now put the predators in the suburbs of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. So, is the continent’s largest cat staging an East Coast comeback? Mary X. Dennis investigates just what it would take for pumas to repopulate their former range and how doing so might even help save some humans. OnEarth

The Combustion Engine Refuses to Die
The basic components of the combustion engine were invented so long ago that they outdate the phonograph and the light bulb. Yet here we are in 2013, and the large majority of our automobiles still employ this 19th-century tech. Combustion engines are inefficient. They convert only 14 to 30 percent of the gasoline we feed them into power we can use. So, why haven’t we all switched over to electric cars and the 96 percent fuel-to-energy ratio that comes with them? Well, according to Norman Mayersohn, that’s where it gets complicated. Nautilus

Artists Join Scientists on an Expedition to Collect Marine Debris
What happens when you send a team of scientists and artists up to Alaska to clean up marine debris on the beach? Art, dummy! Vicky Gan shows us how artists approach this pervasive problem and give the rest of us some ideas on what to do with all the plastic wreckage (y’know besides not producing so much of it in the first place). Smithsonian

Tired of Reading Yet? Watch This.

For the love of fishes: You probably already know that overfishing is devastating ocean ecosystems. But sometimes a picture is worth 1,000 reminders. Strap yourself in for this beautiful-yet-regretful video depicting just how serious the outlook is for sea life. Ocean2012EU

Tips: @OnEarthMag (tag it #greenreads)

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Who You Calling Chicken Little?
Nearly 300 people have fallen ill from a salmonella outbreak that includes drug-resistant strains, while federal disease investigators are off the job due to the government shutdown.

Close to 300 people in 18 states have been infected with salmonella in an outbreak traced back to packages of raw chicken. Salmonella outbreaks aren’t unusual, unfortunately—the government reports 51 in the last seven years—but this one is particularly troubling for two reasons:

Some of the salmonella strains are proving hard to treat with drugs, marking them as antibiotic-resistant, which is resulting in an unusually high rate of hospitalization—about double what you would see in a typical outbreak.

The federal government agencies that are usually responsible for detecting, tracking, and combating food-borne disease outbreaks are operating with skeleton crews due to the week-old government shutdown.

Let’s start with the basics. Despite its reduced resources, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been able to trace the bacteria making people sick, Salmonella Heidelberg, back to poultry products that were produced by three Foster Farms facilities in California. The company, though, has not issued a recall, saying that the chicken is safe if consumers cook it thoroughly (though the bacteria can still be spread from raw chicken to kitchen surfaces and cooking utensils).

All food recalls in the United States are voluntary, but the USDA can request one and seize products if a manufacturer refuses. So far, the USDA hasn’t taken that step in this case, though it did issue a public health alert on Monday. (If you’re concerned about your own recent purchases, the outbreak has been traced to packages with USDA inspection numbers P6137, P6137A, and P7632.)

Ordinarily, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would monitor a national outbreak of foodborne illness with a centralized detection system, but that has been shut down due to the stalemate in Washington. CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds told the Washington Post that in order to track the current outbreak, the agency had to call back nearly a dozen experts who had been furloughed.

With its advanced tracking system on the sidelines, the CDC has been forced to rely on email and phone calls with state agencies. Of the 183 sick people investigated by the CDC in this outbreak so far, 42 percent have been hospitalized with diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps, which is about twice the rate of a typical salmonella outbreak. Altogether, 278 illnesses have been reported to date.

“This outbreak shows that this is a terrible time for government public health officials to be locked out of their offices and labs, and for government websites to go dark,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“The livestock industry is using these drugs, breeding drug-resistant bacteria, spreading them into our communities, and threatening our health.”

Hard-to-treat illnesses caused by drug-resistant bacteria are increasingly common due to the overuse of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture, the CDC says. Just last month the agency released its first report on the threats posed by antibiotic-resistant germs, concluding that soon, if we’re not careful, we may not have any drugs left that can combat resistant bacteria.

As OnEarth has previously reported (see “You Want Superbugs with That?”), 80 percent of the antibiotics in the U.S. are sold for use in livestock, and the vast majority are administered to promote growth and stave off potential infections, not to treat illness. Bacteria in the guts of farm animals can evolve to resist those antibiotics, then spread from livestock to the humans who tend them. Drug-resistant bacteria can then be passed on to people who have never been anywhere near a chicken house or hog barn.

Yet even as evidence of the practice’s negative impact on human health has grown, more drugs are being administered to livestock than ever before—from 17.8 million pounds per year in 1999 to 29.8 million pounds in 2009.

“The livestock industry is using these drugs, breeding drug-resistant bacteria, spreading them into our communities, and threatening our health,” says Jonathan Kaplan, director of the food and agriculture program at NRDC, which publishes OnEarth. “This is a very clear problem.”

NRDC and several partners have sued the FDA in an attempt to force the agency to restrict the use of antibiotics in healthy livestock; the FDA continues to appeal NRDC’s wins in court, despite scientific evidence and the agency’s own findings—some dating as far back as the 1970s—that the practice poses a danger to human health.

So far, no one has died from the current salmonella outbreak, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have long-term repercussions. “Foodborne illness can have lifelong consequences that range from arthritis to kidney trouble to heart disease,” writes Maryn McKenna, author of the book Superbug, on her Wired blog. And to those who argue that the current outbreak is no big deal—just cook the chicken—she responds that this “fails to account for salmonella’s nimbleness at spreading off raw meat to other niches in professional or home kitchens—a cutting board, a counter, a towel, a sponge, the cook’s hands—and then from there in an undetected manner to other foods.”

In other words, at least for now, it might not be unreasonable if you feel a little chicken about eating, well, chicken.

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image of Susan Cosier
Susan Cosier is OnEarth's Midwest correspondent. She previously worked at Audubon magazine, and has written for a number of science and environmental publications. She's a graduate of New York University's science journalism program. MORE STORIES ➔
Russ Kremer, Pope of Pork
Russ Kremer sells antibiotic-free pork to customers like Whole Foods and Chipotle. His advocacy for a better way of hog farming has earned him the moniker "Pope of Pork."
Meet the farmer who inspired Chipotle's commercial in praise of small pork producers

Priest or pig farmer? Those were the only two callings that Russ Kremer ever considered. And really, it wasn’t even close.

Raised in the hamlet of Frankenstein in central Missouri, a few miles from where he still lives, Kremer wasn’t even old enough to attend grade school when his father gave him the job of bottle-feeding orphaned piglets in the house. By age six, he had graduated to tending sows and their litters. At eight, Kremer’s father handed him a recently weaned female and said, "She’s yours." Kremer named her Honeysuckle and raised her like a pet, often lying beside her in her stall. She gave birth to 15 young -- a challenge because she only had 13 nipples. Normally, at least three piglets would have died, but Kremer switched the babies on and off their mother during the critical early weeks. All 15 survived.

For a time as a teenager, Kremer, a devout Catholic, considered becoming a priest. "I was always a person of faith," he says. "I went to Catholic schools and was inspired by the work priests did to help people." Even today, his voice, a soft twang, can take on reverential tones when he talks about his animals, and he’s been a life-long bachelor. But when he realized that he could never minister to a congregation and raise a herd of swine at the same time, he headed off to the University of Missouri, got a degree in animal husbandry, and returned home.

Instead of the catechism, he followed the canon of modern agribusiness.

To get more profit from the land, which his family had farmed for five generations, Kremer erected a long, low warehouse-like building and cycled 2,400 hogs a year through his operation. It wasn’t pretty. The sows that produced his piglets spent their entire lives confined to gestation and farrowing crates -- metal enclosures barely larger than the animals themselves, which barely allowed them to move. The piglets grew up cheek by jowl in metal pens. Stressed and sickly, the animals were fed a constant diet of commercial feed laced with low levels of antibiotics. Slatted concrete floors allowed their excrement to drop into a vast pit below the barn. Massive fans pushed out poisonous gasses from the pit. In the mid-1980s, a thunderstorm struck in the predawn hours of a Sunday morning, knocking out power. Within a few hours, more than 200 hogs suffocated from the gas. Instead of going to church that morning, Kremer dug a pit and buried them.

"Raising pigs like that was the worst mistake I ever made," he says.

NRDC's Growing Green Awards

Russ Kremer is a 2013 recipient of the Growing Green Awards from NRDC, which publishes OnEarth. Honored in the category of food producer, Kremer will receive a $10,000 prize and be celebrated at NRDC’s annual benefit in San Francisco on April 4. Winners are chosen by an independent panel of nationally renowned sustainable food leaders. Learn more here about NRDC's Growing Green Awards and this year's other recipients.

The last straw came in 1989, when a 700-pound boar, eager to service a receptive sow, sliced open Kremer’s knee with one of its tusks. The leg became infected and ballooned to twice its normal size. Doctors treated him with a half dozen different antibiotics, but the virulent Streptococcus suis bacteria proved to be resistant to all of them. Kremer developed heart palpitations. His family was told to prepare for the worst. A last-ditch intravenous regimen of an extremely potent drug subdued the bacteria and saved his life. The germs that nearly killed him, he learned from his doctor, were identical to ones his veterinarian had found in dead pigs from his barns -- the same pigs he had been feeding antibiotics that made their bacteria more resistant to treatment. (For more on the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in livestock, see "You Want Superbugs With That?")

"Right then and there, I got rid of every pig I owned. I said to myself, 'What the hell have I done?' At first I was going to give up raising hogs altogether. But it was all I ever wanted to do in my life."

So Kremer did the unthinkable: he bought new pigs and began to raise them without antibiotics. "I went cold turkey. Everyone I talked to told me I was crazy," he said. "All my pigs would die."

They were wrong. The first drug-free year, Kremer saved $16,000 in veterinary bills, and his hogs flourished. Unfortunately, the hog market collapsed in the late 1990s. One after the other, small family hog farmers in the county went out of business, often unable to sell pigs at any price to slaughterhouses designed to handle thousands of animals a day.

To survive, Kremer had to reinvent his approach to farming a second time. He and 33 other hog producers formed the Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative to market their meat directly to commercial customers at premium prices. Members agreed to abide by a set of strict regulations: no antibiotics would be fed to the pigs. The animals had to have access to pasture. Their diet would consist of unadultered corn, soy, and oats. Sows could not be confined to crates. At slaughter, Ozark pigs would be killed painlessly after being rendered insentient by carbon dioxide gas. "I called it retro hog raising," Kremer says.

Joe Maxwell was one of the early converts. His family abandoned hog farming after four generations in the business. "The model didn’t work. Small farmers were closing down, going bankrupt, and driven off the land. The market was broke and nobody else was going to fix it," he says. "Banding together and selling a value-added product was the way forward. And our added value would come from building a model that was sustainable -- for the land, the animals, and us." The Maxwells now raise 5,000 pigs annually on 200 acres and plan to increase their herd by one-third this year.

Because of his hectic schedule as president of the cooperative, Kremer, now 55, produces only 1,200 pigs a year, about half as many as he did when raising them in confinement. "It doesn’t mean that I might not go back up to 2,400," he says. "We have enough land to expand and still do it the right way." At first sight, his farmland looks more like a forest reserve than an agricultural operation. Over 90 percent of the terrain consists of steep ridges covered in mature oaks and cedars. The clear areas are dotted with pastures and ponds. On a spring morning, a hundred or so three-month-old piglets the size of obese beagles cavort in a barn whose floor is covered in a deep layer of straw. White, brown, red, black, spotted, all are crosses of heritage varieties like Tamworths, Berkshires, and Durocs, bred for well-marbled, tasty meat, physical stamina, and good mothering instincts.

The piglets greet Kremer eagerly, nudging his legs with their snouts and nibbling the tops of his boots and the cuffs of his blue jeans. Others play a vigorous game of king of the mountain on a large round bale of straw, while a few tugged, puppy-like, on a tire swing suspended from the rafters. The barn doors stand open. Outside, small herds of piglets run in circles and frolic for sheer pleasure on a green field of rye on the valley floor.

Kremer, whose evangelism for the coop has earned him the moniker "Pope of Pork," steers his Chevy four-by-four pickup up a muddy track and sermonizes. He believes his approach to agriculture -- not the antibiotic-heavy confinement operations favored by agribusiness -- is what will feed the future. "We’re sustainable, and we can sustain the world," he says, stopping the truck beside a woodlot dotted here and there with metal hog houses. "In the fall, we let the pigs in the forest eat the acorns," he says. "These rocky ridges are excellent for raising pigs. Pigs like to root. Concrete slats just don’t cut it. We had to relearn what pigs were put on this earth to do. We try to mimic nature."

For its first several years, the Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative lost money and went nearly $1 million into debt. Kremer spent most of his time traveling around the country trying to convert potential customers to his way of raising meat. A watershed moment came in 2006 when Whole Foods Market began carrying Ozark’s pork in Midwestern stores, quickly followed by Chipotle Mexican Grill and D’Artagnan, a New-York-city-area purveyor of gourmet food.

"About a dozen years ago, we decided to find farmers that were raising meat in a better way -- naturally and without antibiotics," says Chris Arnold, a spokesman for Chipotle. "We are constantly making efforts to look for better suppliers, and we loved Russ and his dedication." Arnold says that Kremer’s story helped inspire an ad that aired during the 2012 Grammy Awards, in which Willie Nelson covers Coldplay’s "The Scientist," singing "I’m going back to the start" as a cartoon pig farmer decides to abandon his massive factory-farming operation and return to the old-school model.

Today, Kremer’s coop is profitable. Members are paid according to a formula that takes the cost of feed into account and guarantees a fair wage and a reasonable return on the farmer’s investment. This spring, that means they'll receive about $1.15 a pound for their finished hogs, compared to the 85 cents that commodity growers are getting -- or about $50 more per animal.

The cooperative has now grown to include 60 local farmers, and Kremer expects a few more to join this year. The group processes about 1,300 pigs every week. Kremer has no aspirations to have the coop grow bigger. "I want to keep it a size where I know all the producers personally," he says. A network of farmers that Kremer is associated with recently purchased its own processing facility and slaughterhouse and is taking steps to make it sustainable and non-polluting. Soybeans are an important source of food for hogs, but nearly all the soy sold in the United States today is genetically modified, so the network also plans to build its own micro soybean mill and commission farmers to raise non-GMO soy for its feed.

Kremer, the lifelong bachelor, has even managed to find time for a girlfriend.

After leaving his farm, Kremer drives for about 10 minutes along winding gravel roads to the barn that houses a herd of about 20 sows; all have recently given birth. He enters, clucks his tongue and says, "Hi, guys," before seating himself on a bale of straw. A 400-pound sow occupying a nearby pen warily keeps an eye on her 13 piglets, each less than a day old and tiny enough to be held in a cupped hand. Then she slowly settles, forelegs first, then back legs, before rolling to her side.

"See how careful she is not to lie on her babies," Kremer says. The sow’s eyelids became heavy and eventually close as her litter suckles. Every so often she emits a deep, quiet grunt. "I can sit here and watch these guys for hours," Kremer says, the permanent smile lines etched around his eyes deepening. "They are so beautiful and happy, and curious and social. Even at this age, they all have distinct personalities. And I know they will never be stressed or fearful throughout their lives until they meet their maker." Amen.

image of Barry Estabrook
Barry Estabrook is a two-time winner of the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards for food writing. His first, for a Gourmet feature about labor abuses in Florida’s tomato fields, led to his acclaimed book Tomatoland about how industrial agricu... READ MORE >
The Food and Drug Administration, the federal agency charged with protecting our health, is a miserable failure

All of his life, Paul Schwarz had been active and healthy. When his family imagined the various ways the decorated veteran of World War II might eventually die, they never imagined that the cause would be a piece of cantaloupe.

On Tuesday, September 13, 2011, Schwarz complained to his daughter Janice of abdominal pains and a slight fever. She took him to his doctor, who said it was likely a case of stomach flu. By Thursday the symptoms had worsened, and Schwarz had developed diarrhea. Janice took him to the emergency room. Once again flu was the diagnosis, and he was sent home. For a time, his condition improved. He called his son, also named Paul, that Sunday and cheerfully assured him that he’d eaten a big breakfast and felt a lot better.

But on Monday morning the younger Paul received an urgent phone call. His father had been rushed to the hospital by ambulance, unable to move his legs. In the coming weeks his behavior grew erratic, and he began thrashing in his bed, hollering, and behaving like a drunk. Usually gentle, he was combative with the nurses. "The devil has a hold of me and won’t let go," he screamed. During a lucid moment, after Schwarz’s condition had stabilized, two of his nieces visited and had an animated chat with him. But after they left, Schwarz, who normally had a sharp mind, turned to Paul and asked, "Who were those people?"

Within a month, Schwarz no longer recognized his son. By then the doctors had determined that he was suffering from invasive listeriosis, an infection caused by Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium transmitted by eating contaminated meat, dairy products, and produce. The pathogen can lead to bacterial meningitis, an infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord that causes headaches, confusion, and convulsions. It kills about one in six of those infected. Children, the elderly, people with depressed immune systems, and pregnant women are most vulnerable. On December 18, 2011, after a drawn-out decline, Paul Schwarz succumbed. He was 92.

Schwarz grew up in Fda City, Missouri, during the hardscrabble years of the Great Depression. In 1943, when he was 19, he married his 18-year-old sweetheart, Rosellen "Rosie" Clouse, and then marched off to serve as an infantryman in the Pacific, returning home a sergeant with two Purple Hearts. He and Rosellen purchased the house where she still lives in 1953, and raised five children. Schwarz was known for a loud, ready laugh and a twinkle in his eye that foreshadowed some practical joke. He remained active, playing golf until age 88, eating healthfully, accepting the occasional drink, and making sure that he and Rosellen, who was suffering from early-stage Alzheimer’s, took their prescribed medications. Devout Catholics, they attended church every Sunday. After Mass they would dine at the same family restaurant, where they always shared a fruit bowl -- grapes, peaches, pineapple, banana, and, fatefully, the cantaloupe.

Schwarz was only one of more than 100 patients suffering similar symptoms at the same time in 28 states. Eventually, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) would attribute 147 illnesses, 33 deaths, and one miscarriage to listeria in the late summer and early fall of 2011, making this outbreak of food-borne illness the most lethal in the United States since 1924. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees food safety for most meat and poultry products, but the Food and Drug Administration is charged with keeping the rest of our food supply safe. For the Schwarz family, the FDA had clearly dropped the ball.

* * *

The 2011 listeria outbreak was not an isolated case. The United States is experiencing what amounts to an epidemic of food-borne illnesses. According to the CDC, there are about 48 million cases of food poisoning a year, leading to more than 128,000 hospitalizations and more than 3,000 deaths. E. coli in spinach and fruit juice, salmonella in eggs and jalapeño peppers, listeria not only in cantaloupes but in cheese and bagged lettuce -- the toll from food-borne bacteria is mind-numbing.

NRDC: Drug Addiction

Jonathan Kaplan

Q&A with the senior policy analyst for NRDC’s health and environment program, an expert on sustainable food.

Barry Estabrook’s article talks in detail about fresh produce and imports of seafood. Does the FDA do a better job in other areas, such as protecting the safety of our meat?

In a word, no. We’re very concerned that the agency has done so little to curb the livestock industry’s addiction to antibiotics. Eighty percent of those sold in the United States go to industrial feedlots and other livestock operations. The vast majority are used on a routine basis on animals that aren’t sick, to make them grow faster or to compensate for poor sanitation, animal stress, and crowded conditions, all of which can be avoided with better practices. This routine use of antibiotics at low levels on entire herds and flocks can breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or "superbugs." These can make their way to us through meat; through people who work with livestock; and via air, water, and soil contaminated by livestock operations. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria now pose a serious threat to humans, and nearly every major medical organization in the country has sounded the alarm.

Read the rest here.

With the exception of E. coli infections, the rate of outbreaks from other pathogens tracked by the CDC has been rising since 2007. The decline in E. coli–related illnesses is in part the result of strong actions taken by the Department of Agriculture in 1994. Following an outbreak caused by tainted hamburger from the Jack-in-the-Box fast-food chain that killed four children, the agency declared E. coli 0157:H7, the strain that sickened the children, an adulterant, making it illegal for companies under USDA jurisdiction to sell food contaminated with the bug. Meat producers took measures to eliminate it from their facilities. But potentially fatal bacteria other than E. coli have yet to be declared adulterants.

Some of the FDA’s deficiencies can be attributed to the haphazard manner in which it has grown. In contrast to the Environmental Protection Agency, which was created in 1970 to bring all federal environmental activities into a single, powerful unit with a clear mandate, the FDA expanded and occasionally contracted over decades in response to crises and pressure from public interest groups and corporate lobbyists. The agency originated in 1852, when it consisted of a single chemist working in the Department of Agriculture. It had no regulatory duties until 1906, when muckraking journalists’ horror stories about food-processing facilities inspired passage of the Federal Food and Drugs Act. In 1937, hundreds of deaths from a new sulfa drug propelled passage of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to prevent similar health disasters. In the 1950s and 1960s, laws addressing pesticide residues, food additives, and color additives gave the agency greater control over food safety.

It would be impossible for any government agency to prevent every case of food poisoning. But there are systematic problems with the FDA that threaten the health of anyone who consumes food in the United States. In report after report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, has uncovered woeful shortcomings at the agency. Its product recall process is ineffective and confusing. It has done a poor job of dealing with the overuse of antibiotics in livestock feed. It lacks the scientific capacity to perform its duties. Even when it does uncover health violations at food-processing plants, the FDA takes enforcement action in only about half of the cases and almost never imposes fines. In the coldhearted calculus of turning a profit, it is perversely logical for corporations to risk making hundreds of people ill when the worst they can expect is a warning letter.

"It’s like doing 100 miles an hour on a lonely stretch of highway in Montana," says William Marler, a Seattle-based attorney who has represented food-poisoning victims in court for 20 years. "Yeah, you might get caught, but in reality the chances of that happening are zero."

By the time doctors diagnosed Schwarz, the FDA had zeroed in on the source of the listeria -- cantaloupe harvested from a farm in Colorado owned by the brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen. Inspectors descended on Jensen Farms three times during September 2011. Conditions could hardly have been more favorable for bacterial growth. Listeria thrives in moist areas. There was no system for pre-cooling the cantaloupes when they were brought in from the fields; this allowed condensation to form on the rinds of the melons as they were refrigerated. Water stood in puddles on the floor. The washing and drying machinery had been designed to handle potatoes, not melons, and was jerry-rigged in a way that made it all but impossible to clean. Corrosion, dirt, and "product buildup" remained on the equipment even after it had been taken apart and supposedly sanitized. Finally, Jensen washed its fruits in water only, using no chlorine or any other antimicrobial solution that might have killed the listeria before the cantaloupes reached consumers.

Jensen issued a recall, but by then the damage had been done. On October 18, more than a month after its initial investigations, the FDA issued a warning letter to the company, which would file for bankruptcy in mid-2012. If there ever was an example of too little too late, this was it.

The FDA considers fresh produce to be "high risk" and therefore a priority for inspection. But until people started dropping dead, the Jensen facility had never once in its 20-year history been inspected by the FDA. Like most produce companies, Jensen used third-party auditors to certify its handling systems. On July 25, at about the same time the first people were being sickened by contaminated cantaloupe, one such auditor, a representative of Bio Food Safety, a Texas-based company whose website advertises "quality service at an unbelievable price," visited Jensen for four hours and blessed the plant with a "superior" rating of 96 percent.

* * *

image of Barry Estabrook
Barry Estabrook is a two-time winner of the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards for food writing. His first, for a Gourmet feature about labor abuses in Florida’s tomato fields, led to his acclaimed book Tomatoland about how industrial agricu... READ MORE >
Researchers are linking an outbreak of difficult-to-treat urinary tract infections to poultry treated with antibiotics

This piece was produced by the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, non-profit journalism organization. This joint investigation was first broadcast on ABC News and appeared in print online at

Adrienne LeBeouf recognized the symptoms when they started. The burning and the urge to head to the bathroom signaled a urinary tract infection, a painful but everyday annoyance that afflicts up to 8 million American women a year. LeBeouf, who is 29 and works as a medical assistant, headed to her doctor, assuming that a quick course of antibiotics would send the UTI on its way.

That was two years ago, and LeBeouf has suffered recurring bouts of cystitis ever since. She is one of a growing number of women, and some men, who have unknowingly become infected with antibiotic-resistant versions of E. coli, the ubiquitous intestinal bacterium that is the usual cause of UTIs.

There is no national registry for drug-resistant infections, and so no one can say for sure how many resistant UTIs there are. But they have become so common that last year the specialty society for infectious-disease physicians had to revise its recommendations for which drugs to prescribe for cystitis -- and many infectious-disease physicians and gynecologists say informally that they see such infections every week.

Dr. Jehan El-Bayoumi, LeBeouf’s physician and an associate professor of medicine at George Washington University Medical Center, said she has seen "a really significant increase, especially within the past two to three years."

But the origin of these newly resistant E. coli has been a mystery -- except to a small group of researchers in several countries. They contend there is persuasive evidence that the bacteria are coming from poultry. More precisely, coming from poultry raised with the routine use of antibiotics, which takes in most of the 8.6 billion chickens raised for meat in the U.S. each year.

Their research in the United States, Canada, and Europe (published most recently this month, in June, and in March) has found close genetic matches between resistant E. coli collected from human patients and resistant strains found on chicken or turkey sold in supermarkets or collected from birds being slaughtered. The researchers contend that poultry -- especially chicken, the low-cost, low-fat protein that Americans eat more than any other meat -- is the bridge that allows resistant bacteria to move to humans, taking up residence in the body and sparking infections when conditions are right. Touching raw meat that contains the resistant bacteria, or coming into environmental contact with it -- say, by eating lettuce that was cross-contaminated -- are easy ways to become infected.

"The E. coli that is circulating at the same time, and in the same area -- from food animal sources, retail meat, and the E. coli that’s causing women’s infections -- is very closely related genetically," said Amee Manges, Ph.D., an associate professor of epidemiology at McGill University in Montreal who has been researching resistant UTIs for a decade. "And the E. coli that you recover from poultry meat tends to have the highest levels of resistance. Of all retail meats, it’s the most problematic that way."

Policy concern over antibiotic-resistant bacteria -- where they come from and how they affect human health -- is at a peak right now.

About 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States each year are given to livestock as "growth promoters" that allow animals to put on weight more quickly, or as prophylactic regimens that protect against the confined conditions in which they are raised. (That figure, taken from FDA documents, is not universally accepted; the Animal Health Institute, an industry group, puts non-human use closer to 28 percent.) For decades, public health and agriculture have been at loggerheads over the practice. Health officials argue that these uses create resistant bacteria that move off large-scale farms via wind, water, dust, and in the animals themselves and the meat they become -- and create difficult-to-treat human infections. Agricultural interests counter that human infections have far more to do with medical misuse of antibiotics than with farming, and that the cost of stopping the drugs would be too great for producers to bear.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates agricultural use of antibiotics, has been aware for decades of evidence that farm overuse of antibiotics creates resistant human infections, but has done little to help. In 1977, the agency proposed withdrawing its own approvals for penicillin and tetracycline use as growth promoters, and the proposal remained on the books even though the FDA was repeatedly stymied by legislative opposition. Last December, the agency actually gave up, and announced that it was cancelling its then 34-year-old attempts, opting instead for a voluntary approach. But this March, and again in June, a district court judge in New York City ruled the FDA must go through with its original program for re-examining agricultural antibiotic use, including holding hearings to examine the drugs’ off-farm effects.

The proposed link between resistant bacteria in chickens and those causing UTIs is not the first time researchers have traced connections between agricultural antibiotic use and human illness. But because the UTI epidemic is so large and costly, the assertion that it might be tied to chicken production has brought renewed attention to the issue.

Investigators have been examining a possible link between growth promoters, chickens, and human infections since at least 2001, when Manges and others published in the New England Journal of Medicine an analysis of clusters of UTIs in California, Michigan, and Minnesota. The striking thing at the time was that the clusters appeared to be outbreaks caused by very similar E. coli strains that were resistant to the common drug Bactrim. In the United States, one out of every nine women has a UTI every year. If a single small group of E. coli was causing some proportion of the infections, that would be alarming -- but it might also offer a clue to defusing the overall epidemic. Initially, though, the researchers had no idea where the strains were coming from.

As a follow-up, Manges and other investigators looked for vehicles that might be transporting particular E. coli strains. That was an unusual challenge, because E. coli is one of the most common organisms on the planet, with a huge variety residing in the guts of humans and every warm-blooded animal, and in reptiles and fish as well. The particular subset of strains they examined are called "ExPEC," for "extra-intestinal pathogenic E. coli" -- that is, E. coli that escapes the gut to cause illness elsewhere in the body, including in the urinary tract.

ExPECs were already a medical-research concern, because E. coli that moves from the gut into the bladder may not stay there. Infections that are not treated can climb up to the kidneys and enter the bloodstream. ExPEC E. coli cause up to 40,000 deaths from sepsis -- the most serious form of bloodborne bacterial infection -- in the United States each year, and since about 2000, antibiotic resistance in ExPEC strains has been climbing.

In 2005, University of Minnesota professor of medicine Dr. James R. Johnson published results of two projects in which he analyzed meat bought in local supermarkets during 1999-2000 and 2001-2003. In both cases, he found resistant ExPEC E. coli strains that matched ones from human E. coli infections. Other researchers soon found similar matches in meat -- particularly poultry -- from across Europe, in Canada, and in additional studies from Minnesota and Wisconsin.

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Maryn McKenna is a journalist and author specializing in infectious disease, public health, global health, and food policy. She writes the Superbug blog for and is the author of Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA (Free Press/Simon & Schuste... READ MORE >
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