Politics of the Plate: Pig Bugs and Fish Farms


A Nasty Bug Invades Our Pig Pens

Even the name sounds creepy: methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Difficult to kill with even the most potent drugs available, the tenacious germ sickens about 90,000 Americans a year, killing some 18,000. Those with weak immune systems are particularly vulnerable.

MRSA was once only found in hospitals. Now, it has invaded the nation’s hog barns, infecting not only the animals, but the farmers who work with them and most likely the pork chops you and I eat. According to a report by Andrew Schneider in the Seattle Post Intelligencer last week, Tara Smith, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa, and her graduate students found MRSA in 49 percent of the 299 pigs they tested on 10 farms in Iowa and Illinois. Of 20 workers tested for the bacteria, nine were positive. Speculation is that the low doses of antibiotics regularly fed to perfectly healthy pigs, not for medical reasons but just to make them grow faster, led to the development of the resistant bacteria.

Humans and animals can harbor the bug without showing any symptoms, but what is particularly worrying is that you don’t need to eat an infected chop to catch it—just touching the raw meat is enough.

The most disturbing part of this story? Neither the Food and Drug Administration nor the United States Department of Agriculture tests for the deadly bacteria, and Schneider reports that pork lobbyists have said that their industry would oppose universal testing of livestock for MRSA, calling it “unnecessary.”

Or do they mean “unwanted?”

It’s Obviously Been Rigged

For the past several years, the Bush administration has been trying to push for offshore fish-farm development, despite serious questions about the ecological impact—not only from the usual roster of environmental groups, but also from its own internal watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which complained that there was insufficient information on potential damage from large-scale offshore operations.

But pesky little things like accountability have never stood in the way of this bunch, and sure enough this week it was revealed that the government planned an end run around those who urge a careful, go-slow approach to open-water aquaculture. The administration proposed a set of rules for ways to use abandoned oil platforms, one of which was for fish farms. But the agency in charge of overseeing the program is the Minerals Management Service, a tool of the energy industry with no experience in fisheries management or environmental issues.

And the deal gets even sweeter for those in power. Not only will the administration get its offshore fish farms, but under the ruling if a new use can be found for abandoned rigs, its pals in the oil business won’t have to pay the high cost of dismantling them.

In Case it Escaped Them...

Two days before the new offshore fish-farm initiative was announced, news broke that 30,000 caged Atlantic salmon broke out of a British Columbia aquaculture operation. The alien species compete for food and breeding sites with native Pacific salmon. Granted, the B. C. farm was close to shore, but escape is one of the many ecological issues that offshore operations have in common with their inshore cousins.

But lest I come across as totally negative: A seiner hired by the farm’s owner, Marine Harvest, did manage to recapture a few hundred of the 30,000 fugitive Atlantics, and local fishing guides were quite happy to have clients reeling in voracious, 14-pound tame fish.

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