New York Times Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristoff recently published a piece on the connection between the rise of MRSA-related infections and industrial hog farming. “Our Pigs, Our Food, Our Health,” documents new and frightening research on this antibiotic resistant-bacterium that kills over 18,000 Americans a year (after eating their flesh and causing agonizing lesions). While MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) has traditionally been associated with hospitals, jails and locker rooms, a new strain has been found that is apparently agricultural in origin. A recent study at the University of Iowa found this particular strain in 45 percent of hog farmers sampled, and 49 percent of the hogs. In Kristoff’s follow-up piece, “Pathogens in Our Pork,” he cites another study which found MRSA in five out of 90 retail pork samples tested in Louisiana.
So far, the disease seems to be acquired primarily in hospitals and through working with pigs – not from eating infected pork. Still this is causing some to wonder about the risks involved in handling it – as Kristoff says, “I’ll still offer my kids B.L.T.’s – but I’ll scrub my hands carefully after handling raw pork.” Others wonder about the risks we all face in allowing MRSA-friendly agriculture. The problem here is not the pigs, but the extreme overuse of antibiotics in industrial systems. This overuse sets the perfect stage for those few surviving bacteria to make an evolutionary comeback, which we are now witnessing. Regardless of how the disease is transmitted, the fact remains that we have very little left in our arsenal to fight it.