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Thursday March 22, 2018

The food-safety headlines seem to never go away these days. With the potentially disastrous constant news stories about fast-food burrito giant Chipotle Mexican Grill being hit by first E. coli then Salmonella and then norovirus, consumers are on high radar alert for food poisoning news. No surprise listeria came in on one of Google's top food search terms for the year 2015.

But is it all bad? Despite some recent food-borne illness outbreaks dominating the evening news, the untold story is that the food you carry is most likely safer now than it has been in history. Here is some perspective your customers may not have heard yet:

■ According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's May 2015 annual report of foodborne disease outbreaks that occurred in 2013 — the latest year available — the number of food-borne disease outbreaks reported to the CDC was down slightly from the previous year. Year 2013's 818 total outbreaks were about 2 percent below 2012's. (CDC defines an outbreak as a disease occurrence that's traceable to a common food and agent that sickens at least two people.) Although the number of hospitalizations caused by a food outbreak increased between 2012 and 2013, the number of illnesses reported fell by nearly 11 percent and the number of people who died, at 16, was down by almost one-third.

■ The results reported for 2013 continued the pattern for previous years, showing 14 percent of those outbreaks occurred either in the home or in the grocery store. By far and away the most common location for outbreaks was a restaurant, which accounted for 60 percent of all outbreaks and 51 percent of illnesses.

■ Annual data from CDC released in May showed incidence rates of the seven most common food-borne disease remained stable or on the decline in 2014, with the exception of one infection. The incidence of Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coli (STEC) O157 and Salmonella enterica Typhimurium
infections declined in 2014 compared with the baselines set by CDC in 2006–2008. All Salmonella infection rates, although slightly higher than the 2006-2008 baseline, remain stable. The incidence of infection with Listeria is also stable and under the baseline. The dark spot in the report, Vibrio, is up 52 percent since 2006-2008. It hospitalized 40 people in 2014, killing two.

Relative food infection rates



Why do farmers use antibiotics?

Last week, Consumer Reports doubled down on its questionable research about dangerous bacteria in ground beef, which Farmer Goes to Market cautioned you to take with a grain of salt, by releasing a review of the past 3 years of "in-depth studies" it has run on bacterial contamination and antibiotic resistant bacteria in meats. Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's "Get Smart about Antibiotics Week," coincident with the World Health Organization's "Antibiotic Awareness Week," set the activist PR machinery in motion, ratcheting upward the media coverage on the subject of antibiotics in agriculture.

With all the negative attention and potential loss in consumer confidence, why do farmers continue to use antibiotics?

They protect from disease, now and in the future. Treating a single, sick animal with an antibiotic, much as you do a sick child, is an important use for antibiotics. But it's not the most important. Trying to treat sick animals in herds or flocks that can number in the thousands is not just folly; it's impossible. So farmers use antibiotics in two ways to remedy illness in that situation: They either medicate all animals in a group or barn using medicine in the common feed or water, and they may use antibiotics similarly when they know disease is present or likely, or they suspect an outbreak may occur. That kind of mass preventive medication has always been--and still is--supported as a legitimate use by the U.S. Food & Drug Adniminstration, which regulates all animal drugs. Furthermore, the accusation that farmers waste antibiotics simply to grow animals faster is a straw man. Antibiotics do improve animal productivity; however, they usually do so because they are preventing debilitating — sometimes deadly — underlying diseases.

It makes food more affordable. A National Research Council study estimated ending the low-level use of antibiotics in all meat production, adjusted for inflation to today’s dollars, could cost food consumers up to $2.9 billion per year. More importantly, the study added, future costs of a ban would be higher, for two reasons. First, it would create a climate of regulatory uncertainty that would scare companies away from investing in new technologies, a prediction that has come to pass as drug companies have abandoned support for cost-effective older drugs in favor of newer, more lucrative products. Second, any ban likely wouldn’t stop at “low-level” antibiotics. Continuing restrictions on all animal antibiotics would increase their cost, reduce their use by farmers and increase animal disease. All will likely increase the cost of food from those animals.

It is humane. The inescapable fact of nature is farm animals sometimes get sick — no matter how they’re raised. Decades of research prove modern antibiotics are almost universally more effective on a case-vs.-case basis than natural remedies relied upon by advocates of organic and all-natural production systems that forbid use of man-made antibiotics. That reality led even organic advocate Hubert Karreman, a Pennsylvania veterinarian, to write in a 2007 edition of the national organic magazine The New Farm, “I believe there was a fundamental mistake made by the U.S. organic community when it rejected all antibiotics, both sub-therapeutic and therapeutic. What I see in organic livestock systems encourages me in many ways, but I’m troubled by the absolute prohibition against antibiotics in the system.”

It may actually make food safer. More than three decades of scientific research suggests an irony in consumers buying "antibiotic-free" products in pursuit of better health: Those antibiotics consumers are paying to avoid can actually help prevent the risk of food-borne contamination. Studies in all farm animal species have demonstrated their prudent use can lower the burden of bacteria in animals entering the processing chain, reducing the chance food can become contaminated and infect humans. Even Consumer Reports own research from the last decade demonstrates higher levels of contamination in meats from farms that don't allow antibiotics.

It protects the environment. Reducing the use of technology like antibiotics does not preserve resources--it increases their consumption because efficiency suffers. A Journal of Animal Science study, for instance, predicts ending the use of antibiotics and hormones in U.S. beef alone would require an additional 1.6 million more cows and 34.8 million acres of land just to satisfy current beef demand. By improving the efficiency of how well animals digest and use feed, antibiotics help spare tons of waste nitrogen, phosphorus and even greenhouse gases from going into the environment as pollutants.

There's no proven reason to give up their benefits. Much as we don’t like to believe legislators, regulators and thoughtful consumers would base decisions on sensationalism or fad, the fact is the allaged connection between using antibiotics in animals and the increasing failure of human drugs is purely theory. One team of independent scholars, for instance, spent more than two years reviewing over 250 scientific papers on the subject, publishing their results in a 2004 issue of the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy. They concluded that if you review only the facts — absent the passion of politics — the real risk in many cases just doesn’t exist at all.

Did Consumer Reports get it right or wrong about beef?

Hitting newstands last week, Consumer Reports magazine's article “How Safe is Your Beef,” tells shoppers its testing suggests your ground beef is full of harmful bacteria, that ground beef coming from animals raised in the normal beef-production system is more heavily contaminated than beef raised "more sustainably", and that sustainable beef is less likely to be contaminated with germs that can make you sick with a disease that doesn't respond to antibiotic treatment.

Sympathetic media headline writers pronounced, "Your ground beef is full of poop."

For its investigation, Consumer Reports purchased 300 packages of conventionally and sustainably produced ground beef from grocery, big-box and natural food stores in 26 cities across the country. It then tested for five common bacteria: Clostridium perfringens, E. coli (including O157 and six other strains that produce dangerous poisons), Enterococcus, Salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus.

The highlights, according to the magazine:

  • All 458 pounds of beef tested contained bacteria that "signified fecal contamination"--that is, Enterococcus or E. coli of the non-toxic kind.
  • Almost 20 percent contained C. perfringens, a bacteria that causes almost 1 million cases of food poisoning annually.
  • Ten percent of the samples had a strain of S. aureus bacteria that can produce a toxin that can make you sick.

And the take-away lesson, according to the consumer-advocacy publication? Despite its relatively higher cost, beef from cattle that are raised sustainably—that is, beef labeled without antibiotics, organic, or grass-fed—is worth the extra money. Grass-fed beef, according to Consumer Reports, is less likely to harbor "superbugs," or bacteria that are resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics.

But a closer look at the full report, available here, raises some serious questions about those conclusions:

Sampling? Collecting, shipping to a lab and sampling 458 pounds of ground beef from across the country is no small task, but Consumer Reports' sample size represents less than a rounding error on the nearly 26 billion pounds of beef U.S. farmers grow each year. As a result, Consumer Reports' conclusions that conventionally raised samples have a higher incidence of contamination than sustainably produced samples does not pass the significance test. The relatively small differences between the rates when placed in context within the the small sample size means Consumer Reports reported no statistical significance between samples for any of the germs tested. "We did not design the study to make statistical comparisons at this level," a spokesman for Consumer Reports told Farmer Goes to Market. In layman's terms, that means if you repeated the very same tests tomorrow, using similar samples from the same outlets with the same techniques, you'd be just as likely to find the results reversed. Other, better designed experiments have found precisely that result: no benefit from organic or antibiotic-free in protecting against either contamination or antibiotic resistance.

Fecal contamination? Headlines notwithstanding, what Consumer Reports' contract lab tested for and found was not fecal contamination, but bacteria that are typically used as "signal organisms" for fecal contamination. E.coli and Enterococcus are often used as an indirect indicator that something may have been contaminated by feces, particularly in environmental testing. But that's not the same as finding feces. Both E. coli and Enterococcus are so pervasive in the environment that, even though they may be common inhabitants of the intestine, they are also generally everywhere else, and thus don't indicate the actual presence of feces.

Contamination--everywhere? Some media got the results closer to the unfortunate reality when they reported "your ground beef is probably contaminated by bacteria." Granted, it may be a difficult conversation to have with germophobic shoppers, but it points out an important reality: The world is not sterile. Because Consumer Reports used sensitive genetic tests that look for and flag only the presence of the genetic material indicating presence of specific bacteria--without saying anything about the amount of those bacteria that are present--you shouldn't be surprised many of the tests popped up positive, in both sets of samples. Bacteria are everywhere in quantities ranging from minute to massive, particularly the Enterococcus species, including not only meat--conventional or "sustainable"--but produce, your shopping carts, the drink dispenser in your deli, the handles on your shopping baskets, elevator buttons, food slicers, carrying trays, belt transporters, food display areascell phones and your hands.

"Superbugs," really? Consumer Reports did find a "marginally significant" difference between samples from conventional ground beef vs. sustainable ground beef when it tested those bacteria to see if they could resist typical antibiotics. They found 18 percent of the beef samples from conventionally raised beef contained bacteria that resisted at least three antibiotics, while only 9 percent of the sustainable samples did likewise. But to leap from that finding to announcing any ground beef contains "dangerous superbugs" is inaccurate, at best. Under any acceptable definition in the medical community, a bacterial species is considered a superbug only if few or no antibiotics remain that can successfully treat them. In this case, that's not true, particularly when looking at Enterococcus, a bacteria that simply doesn't cause foodborne disease. It reflects a common confusion about antibiotic resistance in food and farm animals. You can't talk about antibiotic resistance as a general problem; the only meaningful discussion looks at the resistance of a specific bacteria against a specific antibiotic. Consumer Report's own tests showed nine in 10 of the resistant samples were resistant to only one to three drugs, or weren't resistant at all.

Preconceived outcome? The ground-beef research was conducted by the publication’s advocacy arm, the Consumers Union, and it was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, no stranger itself to criticism that it shapes research questions in the food and farm arena to fit a particular policy agenda. The research report takes up just four pages inside a 54-page document criticizing a wide range of issues surrounding the U.S. beef production system, from animal welfare to environmental complaints.

Can organic feed the world? Here's one former organic advocate's grim assessment

"Embracing [organic farming]," writes slow-food activist and author Anna Lappe from last fall's Organic World Congress in Instanbul, " is increasingly being seen as key to food security.... The notion that [genetically modified organisms] are the only way to feed a growing population is way out of step with both the leading thinkers on food and farming and the world’s smallholder farmers—who produce much of what the planet eats and 80 percent of the food in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa."

"These farmers may not have money on their side," writes Lappe, "but I saw the power of strength in numbers at the Organic World Congress.... What I heard should have biotech execs shaking in their boots, or their penny loafers, as the case may be: Organic agriculture is taking off around the world, especially where it’s needed most."

Perhaps organic agriculture is taking off in the developing world, but that's far from a good thing, according to an article in the journal Agriculture and Human Values, “Facing food insecurity in Africa: Why, after 30 years of work in organic agriculture, I am promoting the use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides in small-scale crop production." Written by Tanzanian professor of conservation agriculture at that country's St. John's University, the article carefully lays out the case for why author John Lotter has had a change of heart about organic purism in pursuit of feeding Africa. Even as he recognizes his call for increased planting of GMO corn and use of the controversial weedkiller glyphosate "may seem an egregious violation of the sustainable agriculture community’s values," he argues small farmholders in Africa simply cannot improve their food security by adopting the fashionable Western practice of organic farming. His surprising analysis echoes many of the same reasons organic adoption continues to contribute only a tiny fraction of food production in the United States:

Organic is not cost-effective. Despite years of advocacy in its cause, Lotter notes, "[A]n organic version of CA [conservation ag] (no herbicide or synthetic fertilizers) has failed to be adopted by the majority of African farmers subject to years of promotion and trials …" The most recent report from Tanzania found 13 percent had adopted the practice despite years of promotion. And the reason for that low adoption of this "continent-saving" low-tech approach? It’s more time-efficient and cost-effective to use herbicide. Farmers using zero-tillage techniques made possible only by use of chemical herbicide in Malawi quickly tripled their profits, Lotter writes.

Organic overstates the problems. Lotter says that although soils fertilized with synthetic fertilizers may not be as healthy and biodiverse as those fertilized with compost and manure, they are by no means toxic. The same goes for the herbicide glyphosate. Some perspective regarding degree of harm is needed in a country where food demand continues to outstrip supply by three to one.

Organic means miss the ends. Any possible health effects of herbicide like glyphosate pales in comparison to the real and undisputed dangers of soil loss and hunger. "Life expectancy here in the central region is about 45 years — these people hardly get the opportunity to get cancer, largely because of food insecurity." Even the environment-sparing attributes of organic don't always hold true, he says. Using a herbicide allows farmers to vastly reduce the amount they plow, which spares water loss and prevents soil loss. Scarce rainfall in his part of Africa commonly comes in intense events, often with just a few rainstorms providing most of the water for the entire season. Intensive agriculture that allows less plowing is crucial to capturing and holding this water.

In the bigger scheme, Lotter sees a potential human toll in organic inflexibility: "The only route I see out of African food insecurity in the next decade is via sustainable intensification — the use of both agrichemicals and organic methods together. My change from working exclusively with organic methods to the inclusion of conventional agrichemicals in Africa is, I believe, not a change in my values. The well-being of people and the environment are still at the center of my ethos, with the proviso that the long-term care of the environment enhances human well-being."

Organic is being pushed for hyprocritical reasons. Lotter's article criticizes the promotion of organic when it's backed by weak science in the service of ideology. One example: While managing an organic farm in northern Tanzania which attracted foreign volunteers, farmers were often told by those foreigners that "fertilizers 'poison' the soil—despite the fact that it is very likely that 99 percent of the calories that these amply-fed volunteers had consumed in their lives were from crops amply fed with synthetic fertilizers, grown in fields that are to this day still highly productive," he writes. As a result of that untrained and prejudiced advice, farmers refused synthetic fertilizer and corn in the area suffered nitrogen deficiency.

For 50 years now, Lotter concludes, aid agencies have failed to enrich subsistence farmers in Africa. "I’m not sure what will work. Social unrest and religious-political extremism are ominous possibilities. There are hurdles no matter which way you turn, but the option to use synthetic fertilizer and herbicide could allow some farmers to shift from a destructive cycle, and into a virtuous cycle, enriching themselves and the land."

Bird flu epidemic has slowed, but it's not gone

The epidemic of highly pathogenic avian influenza, which has now caused the death of more than 48 million birds, has slowed, as USDA reports no new outbreaks in the last 30 days. However, that reprieve may be only temporary, as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told Congress in a hearing last week the agency is preparing for the disease's return in the fall.

As of mid-June, the last date any incident had been reported nationwide, highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses had been detected in commercial and backyard poultry flocks in 15 states, involving 223 premises and affecting more than 48 million birds, resulting in death due to infection or depopulation as part of the control effort. In Nebraska, the state ag department reported last week it had completed testing on flocks near the farms in the state where the virus had been confirmed, in Dakota, Dixon, Wayne and Thurston counties. About 3.8 million birds have been affected in Nebraska.

Just as is the case with human flu, because the influenza virus does not survive easily in hot weather, recent cases of bird flu have waned. However, veterinary health officials are concerned the disease will return this fall for either of two reasons:

  • Cooler and wetter weather in fall will present conditions in which the virus grows and spreads.
  • Migration of wild birds will seasonally increase. Wild migratory waterfowl and shorebirds carry and spread the avian influenza virus globally, so their natural increase in movement in fall will increase the risk for transmitting the viruses to domestic poultry within their natural flyways.

Ag Secretary Vilsack told the House Ag Committee USDA is beefing up its plans to respond to a fall increase in avian influenza by improving containment strategies, encouraging development of a possible commercially available vaccine against the disease, exploring methods to efficiently destroy and dispose of the millions of birds that could become infected, evaluating whether and how to pay farmers for those losses and determining how to quickly repopulate lost flocks. He said the agency considers 500 simultaneous outbreaks to be the worst-case scenario.

No reported human infections have resulted from the current outbreak of bird flu in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the viruses circulating in the country pose low risk to people.

Map of avian flu outbreaks


Species breakdown of bird flu

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