ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

What's the link between bladder infections, CAFOs and Missouri farmers?

I want to highlight a couple of stories we recently produced at the Food & Environment Reporting Network (@FERNnews on Twitter), where I serve as editor in chief. I'm pointing them out because I'm particularly proud of these stories and they took some time to come to fruition. 

The first, which appeared last week in a joint investigation with ABC News was reported by Maryn McKenna, a brilliant science journalist who focuses on nasty microbes (check out her recent book Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA). This past spring, she told me she had come across a number of studies that genetically linked the microbes in antibiotic-resistant bladder infections with antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in chicken. I immediately sensed there was a good story here, because bladder infections affect, as the story points out, one-in-seven women.

What was new, Maryn told me, was that the number of antibiotic resistant infections appeared to be rising, at least based on anecdotal medical evidence, since they are not officially tracked. Secondly, there was this curious link to the microbes in chicken, which develop resistance because chicken are fed antibiotics to promote growth and prevent illness. (For a more in-depth look at this issue, read Maryn's story FERN produced in collaboration with The Atlantic.)

Although the researchers had, in effect, genetically fingerprinted the bacteria, the question arose whether chicken causes the infections. The researchers assert that chicken are a likely and important source of these highly resistant infections, although as Maryn points out, establishing that in a scientific experiment would be unethical because it would risk infecting healthy subjects with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The chicken council also issued a press release questioning the link and we quoted these scientists in the Atlantic item mentioned above. 

The second story, "Whose Side Is the Farm Bureau On?", which ran at The Nation, concerned the big agricultural lobby (and insurance firm) known as the Farm Bureau. The Farm Bureau puts itself forward as the voice of family farmers but reporter Ian Shearn, a Pulitizer Prize winner, focused on a case in Missouri that showed how the bureau actually operates. When giant CAFOs were polluting the waters around small farms, not only did the bureau support the CAFOs, but it pushed for state legislation that would limit civil suits against such operations. Those suits were being filed by small farmers. 

Unlike Maryn's health story, Ian's focused on farmers, but the link between both of them were the practices of concentrated animal operations. While these operations produce plentiful and inexpensive food, they have costs that ripple through society -- whether in being the likely source of recurrent bladder infections commonly suffered by women or in the pollution suffered by Missouri farmers. In short, these stories put a cost on cheap food.

- Samuel Fromartz

Here's the video from the joint investigation between FERN and ABC News.