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.

Interview on @FERNnews with a weird but maybe good picture


Here's the lead-in to a brief interview about the Food & Environment Reporting Network at CJR:

Even as interest in all things food-related skyrockets, space devoted to serious food issues continues to lose out to the gastroporn of hot restaurants and hotter chefs. So last year, a group of fed-up food writers launched the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN), a nonprofit that funds investigative journalism on matters of food, agriculture, and environmental health. Its first piece, on New Mexico’s dairy industry, was published last fall in High Country News; a second story, published on in January, explained how a drug designed to keep pigs lean is hurting US pork exports. CJR’s Brent Cunningham spoke with Sam Fromartz, FERN’s editor in chief.

An Interview about FERN: the Food & Environment Reporting Network

Just a quick note. On Sunday, I did an interview with the Heritage Radio Network talking about the new non-profit journalism venture I'm involved with, FERN. This might give you a better idea of what we're trying to accomplish and the type of stories we're doing.

At the link above, you can listen to the whole 30-minute interview or digest it in segments. The host, Katy Keiffer, was a pleasure to talk to -- and she mentioned she actually read this blog. OK, so I know someone is out there!

- Samuel Fromartz


A Few Comments on the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN)

I'm pleased to announce that this week the Food & Environment Reporting Network launched. I've been working on this a non-profit journalism venture quiety for some time (two or more years), and now serve as editor. It grew out of an impromptu discussion with several people into an organization with a staff, board and editorial advisory board. Our launch coincided with the publication of our first story in High Country News, an award-winning Western magazine which collaborated with us on the piece.

We're supported in this work by several foundations who believe in our vision of producing stories on food, agriculture and environmental health at a time when interest in those areas is growing but in-depth coverage is waning. In our model, we work closely with reporters and media partners so that these stories can see the light of day. We also have a code of ethics that governs our work. 

Now, you might wonder, why not just start a blog? Well, blogs are good models, but what we have in mind is traditional reporting: sending a reporter into the field on an in-depth investigation and giving them the chance to really look into a story. This kind of work is expensive and often falls through the cracks in the rush of the 24-hour news cycle. If you're tied to a blog, this work is especially tough. 

Our first story is a clear example of how this works. Reporter Stephanie Paige Ogburn went down to New Mexico to look into a story about water pollution arising from large dairy farms, focusing on a citizen who launched a campaign to fight it. The story is a good one, in part because the character isn't your typical "environmentalist." (He sports an NRA hat). Ogburn widens the net from what might be viewed as a local story, tying it into broader issues the West has faced with mega-dairies. She also explains the complex regulatory issues with ease.

In the coming weeks, you'll see more work out of FERN (I'm not going to scoop myself and tell you what it is) in a variety of publications. Until then, I leave you with the lead of Ogburn's story:

Jerry Nivens lives in a trailer in Caballo, N.M., 165 miles south of Albuquerque. A bulky Texas transplant who chain-smokes American Spirits, Nivens cares as deeply for his mesquite-speckled patch of ground as any rural New Mexican. He enjoys driving into the mountains, where he used to while away afternoons panning for gold. He goes fishing Lone Star-style–in reservoirs, not rivers.

On the sunny May day I met him, he spilled out of his GMC Jimmy sporting a National Rifle Association ballcap and Magnum P.I.-style sunglasses. He wore brown corduroy pants hung from suspenders with a matching jacket over a plaid shirt. A giant Marlboro belt buckle completed the ensemble. As we drove around, Nivens marveled at artesian pools supporting desert wildlife, exclaimed as a squadron of baby quail crossed our path, and wondered over underground rivers that run to the nearby Rio Grande. Retired from the refrigeration business, he earns money from an invention of his used for water purification. He spends much of his time alone. “I’m kind of an old hermit,” he says.

Which, in a way, was why I had come–to learn how and why this loner became the driving force behind a movement that brought the state’s mega-dairies to heel. The dairy industry is New Mexico’s largest agricultural sector and an influential lobbying force. Although the state Environment Department has long worked with dairies to reduce pollution, change has been slow: Almost 60 percent of the state’s dairies have polluted groundwater with manure runoff, yet not one has begun the required cleanup. (Read the rest at FERN or HCN). 

- Samuel Fromartz