[Marxism] Tainted Pork, Ill Consumers and an Investigation Thwarted
lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 4 12:33:21 MDT 2019
NY Times, Aug. 4, 2019
Tainted Pork, Ill Consumers and an Investigation Thwarted
By Matt Richtel
It was 7 a.m. on Independence Day when a doctor told Rose and Roger
Porter Jr. that their daughter could die within hours. For nearly a
week, Mikayla, 10, had suffered intensifying bouts of fever, diarrhea
and stabbing stomach pains.
That morning, the Porters rushed her to a clinic where a doctor called
for a helicopter to airlift her to a major medical center.
The gravity of the girl’s illness was remarkable given its commonplace
source. She had gotten food poisoning at a pig roast from meat her
parents had bought at a local butcher in McKenna, Wash., and
spit-roasted, as recommended, for 13 hours.
Mikayla was one of nearly 200 people reported ill in the summer of 2015
in Washington State from tainted pork — victims of the fastest-growing
salmonella variant in the United States, a strain that is particularly
dangerous because it is resistant to antibiotics.
What followed was an exhaustive detective hunt by public health
authorities that was crippled by weak, loophole-ridden laws and
regulations — and ultimately blocked by farm owners who would not let
investigators onto their property and by their politically powerful
allies in the pork industry.
The surge in drug-resistant infections is one of the world’s most
ominous health threats, and public health authorities say one of the
biggest causes is farmers who dose millions of pigs, cows and chickens
with antibiotics to keep them healthy — sometimes in crowded conditions
Overuse of the drugs has allowed germs to develop defenses to survive.
Drug-resistant infections in animals are spreading to people,
jeopardizing the effectiveness of drugs that have provided quick cures
for a vast range of ailments and helped lengthen human lives over much
of the past century.
But public health investigators at times have been unable to obtain even
the most basic information about practices on farms. Livestock industry
executives sit on federal Agriculture Department advisory committees,
pour money into political campaigns and have had a seat at the table in
drafting regulations for the industry, helping to ensure that access to
farms is generally at the owners’ discretion.
Dr. Parthapratim Basu, a former chief veterinarian of the Agriculture
Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said the pork industry
regularly thwarted access to information on antibiotic use.
“When it comes to power, no one dares to stand up to the pork industry,”
he said, “not even the U.S. government.”
A reconstruction of the Washington outbreak provides a rare look into
how these forces play out. The New York Times reviewed government
documents, medical records and emails of scientists and public health
officials, as well as conducted interviews with victims, investigators,
industry executives and others involved.
Those industry officials argued in documents and interviews that farmers
needed protection against regulators and scientists who could unfairly
harm their business by blaming it for a food-poisoning outbreak when the
science was complex and salmonella endemic in livestock. The tension
mirrors a broader distrust in agriculture and other business about the
intention of federal regulators and other government overseers.
“Have you ever heard of the phrase, ‘I’m from the government, I’m here
to help you’ — and you know they’re going to screw you?” said David J.
Hofer, the secretary-treasurer of the Midway Hutterite Colony, a
religious community that runs a hog farm in Conrad, Mont. Mr. Hofer said
he was one of the farmers who objected to the farm inspections during
“They might have public health in mind, but they don’t care if in the
process they break you.”
In the end, Mikayla Porter survived, but the threat of the infection
that nearly killed her continues — not least because investigators still
lack access to essential data.
There are 2,500 different types of salmonella. The one that infected
Mikayla is called 4,5,12:i-minus. It first showed up in the late 1980s
in Portugal, and then in Spain, Thailand, Taiwan, Switzerland and Italy.
In the United States, infections it causes have risen 35 percent over
the past decade, while the overall rate of salmonella infections has
The strain typically resists four major antibiotics: ampicillin,
streptomycin, sulfisoxazole and tetracycline.
“We can see resistance is really increasing,” said Dr. Robert V. Tauxe,
director of the division of food-borne, waterborne and environmental
diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This particularly virulent strain of salmonella is just one of a growing
number of drug-resistant germs that put farm families, and meat eaters
generally, at risk.
A study in Iowa found that workers on pig farms were six times more
likely to carry multidrug-resistant staph infections, notably MRSA. A
study in North Carolina found that children of pig workers were twice as
likely to carry MRSA than children whose parents didn’t work in a swine
Those germs can also wind up on pork sold to consumers. An analysis of
government data by the Environmental Working Group, a research
organization, found that 71 percent of pork chops at supermarkets in the
United States carried resistant bacteria, second only to ground turkey,
at 79 percent.
Like many outbreaks of resistant infections, the salmonella variant that
sickened Mikayla is usually so widely dispersed that the C.D.C. has had
a hard time tracking it.
But in the Washington outbreak, the infection was new to the region, and
tests revealed the bug had the same genetic profile in patients,
creating ideal conditions for scientific detective work.
“This was our real opportunity,” said Allison Brown, a C.D.C.
epidemiologist. “Everything lined up.”
A Celebration Turns Dire
The Porter family had invited friends and neighbors to the pig roast to
celebrate a major life change: In three days, they would be moving to
But the day after the roast, Mikayla felt sick, and by 4:30 a.m. the
following morning, she had diarrhea so severe that her parents took her
to the emergency room.
There, a doctor said she had a stomach bug, assuring them it would pass
and approving her to travel. Her parents also felt sick, but not as
seriously, and they flew to Costa Rica as planned.
After arriving, Mikayla got much worse, excreting mucus and blood. She
lay in agony on the couch, the family dogs sitting beside her protectively.
A doctor at BeachSide Clinic near Tamarindo, the town where the family
had rented a house, prescribed the antibiotic azithromycin, medical
records show. It did not work.
The family returned to the clinic the next day. That is when Dr. Andrea
Messeguer told Mikayla’s parents their daughter could die, and helped
arrange the airlift to Hospital CIMA in the capital, San José.
There, doctors determined that Mikayla had a systemic infection. She
received intravenous hydration and antibiotics.
Tests came back from the national lab showing the drug-resistant
Back in Washington, many others were also getting sick.
On July 19, Nicholas Guzley Jr., a police officer, ate pork at a
restaurant in Seattle, and at 2 a.m. threw up in the shower. The medical
ordeal that followed was so excruciating — vomiting, diarrhea, bleeding,
a fever of 103.9 degrees, dehydration and multiple hospital visits —
that he said it was worse than a near-death experience in 2003 when he
had been hit by a truck.
“If you stack up all the pain from all the injuries, this blew it away,”
On July 23, the head of Washington’s Department of Health sent out an
alert, warning that 56 people had fallen ill and publicizing an
investigation into the outbreak by the state’s health and agriculture
agencies, coordinating with the C.D.C. The Washington State
epidemiologist, Dr. Scott Lindquist, took the lead.
On July 27, a restaurant had its permit suspended for food safety
violations, including failure to keep its food hot enough. Multiple
restaurants were identified as possible sources of tainted pork, along
with several pig roasts.
Dr. Lindquist and his team discovered that many of the infected roast
pigs had come from a slaughterhouse called Kapowsin Meats. Tests of 11
samples taken from slaughter tables, knives, hacksaws, transport trucks
and other spots showed that eight were positive for the resistant strain.
At Kapowsin, the state investigators spoke to the federal official
responsible for inspecting the slaughterhouse, who suggested that they
look for the farms where the tainted pork had come from.
The Heart of an Outbreak
Records obtained by the state showed that many of the pigs supplied to
Kapowsin originated on industrial farms in neighboring Montana.
On Aug. 13, state records noted that the investigative team — including
the C.D.C. and the federal Agriculture Department — was in touch with
officials in Montana to discuss gaining access to the farms.
Determining where the outbreak originated would have allowed the team to
trace other possibly infected pork, recall it and advise the owners on
how to change their practices.
But such investigations are extremely sensitive because the publicity
can be bad for business, and because the law protects farmers in such
situations. Over all, the government has little authority to collect
data on farms.
“We have people in the slaughterhouses every day, all day long,” said
Paul Kieker, the acting food safety administrator at the Agriculture
Department. “We don’t have a lot of jurisdiction on farms.”
The Food and Drug Administration is charged with collecting antibiotic
use data. But farms are not required to provide it, and only do so
As a result, the federal government has no information about the
antibiotics used on a particular farm and no way to document the role of
the drugs in accelerating resistance.
“I haven’t been on a farm for years,” said Tara Smith, a professor at
Kent State University and an expert on the connection between resistance
and livestock. “They’ve closed their doors to research and sampling.”
Investigators Are Turned Away
Dr. Lindquist, the epidemiologist leading the investigation of the
Washington outbreak, pleaded with Montana’s health agency to help him
gain access to the farms that had supplied the Kapowsin slaughterhouse.
In a memo to state officials, he told them that such infections were
increasing rapidly and that “on-farm investigations will help us better
understand the ecology of salmonella” and “prevent future human illnesses.”
Days later, he received a phone call from Dr. Liz Wagstrom, the chief
veterinarian for the National Pork Producers Council, a group that
lobbies on behalf of the livestock industry. Its campaign donations to
congressional candidates have more than doubled in the past decade, to
$2 million in 2018, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Dr. Wagstrom sought to find out what Dr. Lindquist had learned in his
investigation and what he was saying to the media, he said, recalling
the conversation. He said she was worried the pig farms might be
unfairly tarnished, arguing that salmonella was common on farms, so an
investigation wouldn’t prove anything, even if the infection was detected.
In an interview, Dr. Wagstrom said she was concerned that farm visit
wouldn’t yield valuable information. “What would you learn that could
positively impact public health?”
The industry soon became more involved. Officials from the National Pork
Board joined regular crisis conference calls during the investigation,
along with numerous state and federal health and agriculture officials.
The board is a group of pork industry executives whose members are
elected by the industry and then appointed by the secretary of
agriculture, cementing a tight bond between business and government.
Dr. Lindquist initially welcomed the executives’ presence, given their
expertise, though he did not know who had initially invited them.
That same year, F.D.A. guidelines went into effect that were supposed to
enable the tracking of antibiotics on farms. They required farms to
obtain prescriptions from veterinarians to dispense antibiotics, and
only to animals sick or at risk of illness. The guidelines said that
farms must stop using antibiotics as “growth promoters.”
But the rules have loopholes, which were highlighted a year earlier when
officials from the F.D.A., C.D.C., the Agriculture Department and the
Pew Charitable Trusts met at the University of Tennessee. The group
heard from Thomas Van Boeckel, an expert in statistical modeling and
antibiotic resistance who was then at Princeton.
Dr. Van Boeckel told the group that he could build maps showing changing
levels of antibiotic use on farms and compare them with changing levels
To do so, he said, he needed data sets by region or, better yet, by farm.
“I was told there was a single data point per year, literally,” he said.
That data point: Around 33 million pounds of medically important
antibiotics, a 26 percent increase from 2009, were sold in the United
States for farm use. The figure, collected from sales data by the
F.D.A., was the sum total of the information they were able to provide him.
Dr. Van Boeckel told the group that without more specific information,
he couldn’t do any real measurement.
“They said: Yeah, that’s going to be challenging.”
On Aug. 26, Kapowsin agreed to cease operations, in cooperation with the
state. The next day, there was a recall of 523,380 pounds of its pork
At the same time, the Montana Pork Producers Council wrote to the
Washington health agency, saying it was “clear that there is little to
no value in conducting on-farm investigations,” and that investigators
should focus on slaughterhouses.
Anne Miller, the council’s executive director, said she did not
appreciate that the researchers were coming at a time of crisis. “The
trick to getting good information is get research before you get to that
situation,” she said. “Why hadn’t this been done prior?”
She spoke to pork producers in the state, and some expressed concern
about being unfairly blamed for the outbreak, worried that government
officials seeking information on their farms could unfairly tarnish
their image and business.
Mr. Hofer, of the farm in Conrad, said in a phone interview that he
objected strongly to the investigation.
“I was animated about that,” he said. “Let’s say they found something —
it probably would have screwed up some other markets we had.”
Mr. Hofer said his farm provided pigs to Kapowsin but did not know if
the sales had overlapped with the outbreak. He said it was clear to him
that the slaughterhouse was to blame. “There was salmonella all over
On Aug. 28, the National Pork Producers Council sent Washington State a
follow-up letter concurring with Ms. Miller.
“I know that you do not want any inadvertent negative consequences to
farms as a result of this proposed on-farm sampling,” Dr. Wagstrom wrote
in the letter.
Ms. Miller and others in the industry said farms could provide voluntary
information on antibiotic use, but they have taken a hard line on
government access because of fears that individual farms would be
singled out for a complex problem with multiple causes.
The position stuns some scientists.
“So let’s not do anything to give anyone a bad reputation, including any
bad behavior?” asked Dr. James Johnson, a professor at the University in
Minnesota and an expert in resistant infections. “The people who stand
to benefit from having everyone remain ignorant are the ones who protest
That September, Dr. Lindquist still hoped his team would get the
go-ahead to take samples from the five farms thought to have been
possible sources for the outbreak, but it never came.
“I don’t know even to this day why this got stymied,” he said.
He said he did not know that Ms. Miller, the head of the Montana Pork
Council, had contacted the farms and been told they would not permit a
visit from researchers.
The farms officially declined, through her, to comment for this story.
By Sept. 22, the case load had hit 178 known infections, with 29 people
hospitalized, but the outbreak was petering out. The investigation
ended, Dr. Lindquist said, “with a whimper.”
“During the outbreak, I heard from restaurants, patients, the
slaughterhouse, the U.S.D.A., F.D.A., the Department of Agriculture in
Washington and Montana, the health department in Montana and the health
department in Washington State,” Dr. Lindquist said. “I did not hear
from the farms.”
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