Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Antibiotic resistance in food animals: What's wrong with this report?

There have been many reports lately in the major entertainment-news media regarding the use of antibiotics in food animals. In only the last two weeks nearly every segment of the so-called major media – television, print, radio and internet – reported on a study purporting to show that nearly all meat products sampled in grocery stores were contaminated by antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. What the entertainment-news media failed to report, however, were the bulk of the actual findings of the study, funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, and the study’s very significant shortcomings.

Firstly, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) was formed in 2006 to “…investigate the problems associated with industrial farm animal production…and to solve them.” Think about that for a moment. Though in its mission statement PCIFAP says it was “…formed to conduct a comprehensive, fact-based and balanced examination of key aspects of the farm animal industry,” the group’s beginning assumption is that there are “problems” with animal agriculture and they are going to “solve” them. With a brief like that, it’s naïve in the extreme to expect findings which are comprehensive, fact-based, or balanced.

Little wonder that in the preface of their 2008 report on US agriculture, PCIFAP calls modern US agriculture “the agro-industrial complex” and equates it with President Eisenhower’s dire warnings about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. If you've followed histrory at all, you might have noted that the military-industrial complex did not, in fact, take over and destroy the world.

The preface of the PCIFAP report closes with this paragraph: “The present system of producing food animals in the United States is not sustainable and presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health and damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise for food.” To see a copy of the report, visit http://www.ncifap.org/bin/e/j/PCIFAPFin.pdf

It’s clear that Pew and their affiliate researchers have taken a one-sided, highly-partisan approach to studying US agriculture. Let’s look at some of the shortcomings of their latest so-called study.

Pew used the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) of Flagstaff, Ariz. to conduct their study. TGen collected 136 samples of meat and poultry from 80 brands in 26 grocery stores in five US cities – Los Angeles, Flagstaff, Ft. Lauderdale, Chicago, and Washington D.C. The company refused to disclose the brand names or the names of the grocery stores. Those who’ve studied statistics and scientific methodology will recognize that 136 is a tiny sample size; far too small a size from which to draw their sweeping conclusion that bacterial contamination of the US meat and poultry supply is “pervasive and widespread.”

When the USDA studies bacteria in the US meat supply, they take thousands of samples from grocery stores across the country, and their report includes store and brand names. The USDA also samples over long periods of time, a strategy which helps to identify trends in contamination. The USDA, in fact, is continuously sampling all food products available to US consumers – not just meat and poultry.

TGen reported that 47 percent (“nearly half”) of the samples they collected were contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus, and that 52 percent of those bacteria were resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics. Furthermore, TGen said that DNA testing indicated food animals “as the major source” of the contamination.

Unfortunately, TGen seems to have been fibbing about the source of the contamination. According to Drs. Elizabeth Wagstrom and Peter Davies of the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Population Medicine, isolates of Methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) found in the study were human types, meaning the meat likely was contaminated by people. Methicillin, they added, is not used in food animals.

Moreover, according to Dr. Ellin Doyle of the University of Wisconsin's Food Research Institute, Staphylococcus aureus is found in over half of human nasal passages. The incidence of MRSA is much lower – estimates by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicate that only about 1.5 percent of people in the general population carry MRSA. Doyle adds that only two foodborne outbreaks of MRSA have been identified, and both were attributed to food handlers contaminating food – not to the food source itself. S. aureus is also carried by household pets and can be transmitted in health care settings, she said.

The TGen study also failed to sample foodstuffs from non-meat and poultry areas of the grocery stores. Such samples would have provided a “control” of sorts, and provided the researchers data which would likely have helped them understand whether humans or food animals were responsible for the contamination. Were S. aureus and/or MRSA found on canned goods, bakery products, or fruits and vegetables, for instance, the researchers could hardly have concluded that the contamination came from food animals. The culprit would have been identified as most likely human.

Unfortunately, consumers can’t rely on the major entertainment-news media for honest reporting. To arm themselves with the facts, consumers should view most news reporting through a skeptical filter, asking themselves whether what they are being told is fact-based and reasonable or speculation-based and sensational.

In the next installment of this series we’ll look a what pathogenic bacteria are and how they make us sick.

How protective is too protective?

As I grabbed the hind leg of a new calf, preparing to weigh, tag and vaccinate it, the cow came at me with a will. Bellowing and snorting, she drove her head into my midsection, flinging me back about 15 feet with the power of 1,000 lbs. of adrenaline-fueled protectiveness.

Her charge didn’t stop there, either. She came back at me, head down and bellowing, clearly intent on driving me away from her new baby. As she pushed me back I tried hard to stay upright, leaning forward into her charge with my feet in a wide stance, trading time and distance for balance, instinctively reverting to the old football tactic of being pushed but not controlled. There wasn’t much else I could do. The cow relented after her second rush, then stood there between the calf and I (and my pickup!), watching me closely for any further predatory moves toward her new charge.

Though I was startled by the suddenness, intensity and determination of the cow’s charge, and though it was a frightening experience, I knew that she was only moving me away from her calf; that she wasn’t intent on hurting me. I’ve experienced both, and there’s a big difference.

I wasn’t, however, really surprised at the cow’s behavior. She’d acted in a similar fashion when I tagged her very first calf last April. Similar in the sense that she’d pushed me away, though with much less force and authority. Last year I’d managed to hang on to the calf and flip it in the back of the pickup where I could finish my work in relative peace.

With last year’s experience as a gauge, I was forewarned and cautious this year. I’d be careful and alert as I approached the new pair, but I’d also be calm and confidant. Keeping your attitude and demeanor relaxed and non-threatening is key in practicing low stress cattle handling. Keeping emotions at bay is important, too. From a low stress perspective, the point of tagging at or near birth is to quickly get the pair through the stress of the tagging procedure. We’ve seen that these things pay dividends in healthier, better-performing calves on our ranch, so our low stress approach is one we’ll keep.

Often a cow will be somewhat aggressive in protecting her calf one year, then gradually relax over the next several years. Perhaps they “learn” that the threat isn’t as severe as it first appeared. Perhaps they begin to “understand” the tagging process as a normal state of affairs. Some cows, however, will always be quite aggressive. Researchers believe that aggressiveness is in part genetic predisposition, and in part learned behavior.

As I stood there in the bright sunshine the other morning, separated from my pickup and my tagging chore by a protective cow, I knew that time was on my side. I stood my ground quietly, neither making eye contact with the cow nor moving toward the calf or my pickup. Within a few minutes the calf began to move away and the cow followed. I returned to my pickup, carefully placed my tagging gear in the bed, then settled in to watch the pair. The calf nursed for a while, then lay down in the warm sunshine as the cow moved off a few feet to graze. It was all the opportunity I needed.

I quickly moved the pickup between the pair, calf on my side and cow on the other side. I jumped out, flipped the calf into the bed of the pickup, and hopped in the back myself. By the time the cow had moved around the pickup, both the calf and I were safely above the fray and I could get on with my job.

I quickly tagged, vaccinated, and weighed the calf, checked it for horn buds, then castrated it with an emasculating band. As I worked, the cow dashed around bellowing and carrying on. She acted like she wanted to climb into the pickup bed but couldn’t figure out how to do it. Once or twice she thumped the side of the pickup with her head, leaving shallow dents in the body work. Oh, well, it’s a working pickup.

Finished with my job, I lowered the calf to the ground where his exited mother checked him over carefully. Seeing that all was well, the cow led her newly decorated baby off over a rise, looking for a bit of peace and quiet.

By the next morning, the cow had lost much of her protective demeanor and was grazing several hundred yards away from her calf. She kept an eye on me as I drove through the herd checking cows and calves, but she didn’t seem overly concerned.

But now it’s decision time. With two strikes (literally) against her, can we afford to keep an overly-protective cow in our quiet, very low stress herd?

In the cow’s favor, she’s only been aggressively protective during the first 24-48 hours after birth. Otherwise, she’s quiet and easy to work with. She’s also an outstanding mother, having raised a fine heifer last year – one that we kept back as a replacement. Also, according to the research I’ve studied, temperament is only about 20 percent genetic and 80 percent learned behavior. Considering the circumstances of her first birth and first aggressive behavior, it’s fair to say that I “taught” her, at least to some extent, to be fiercely protective of her calf.

On the other hand, she represents a high level of risk to those who have to work with her during the perinatal period. Too much risk, in my opinion. She’s a great cow, but she’ll be an even better cow in a herd where delayed tagging is practiced.

So as things stand now, this cow will be going to town after weaning.

And next spring I’ll keep a very close eye on her daughter as she has her first calf. We’ll see how it goes.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Night watch

At 9:30 p.m. it’s dark out. The sun is down with not even a hint of light lingering in the west. Overhead a thin overcast hides the stars and mostly obscures a waxing crescent moon. The air is cooling and damp – about 45 degrees – and the forecast calls for overnight rain. The air is still, without a hint of wind. The quiet sounds of the nighttime prairie are all around; tiny clicks and taps of small animals, the distant yip of coyotes a few miles to the south, the sound of cows browsing a long, slow, evening meal.

My eyes have grown adjusted to the dark and I can clearly see the heifer whose birth progress I’m monitoring. She’s laid up in a dense thicket of last year’s sweet clover, hidden from close view but easily visible from my perch on a hill several hundred yards to the south. I’m far enough away to not be a distraction, close enough to see in general what she’s doing and how she’s progressing. Occasionally I raise well-crafted German binoculars to my eyes for a close, clear view. I cringe a bit when I think about how much I paid for the optics, but they were purchased with just this situation in mind. Over the years they’ve proved worth the cost.

The heifer’s labor began about 6 p.m. with the sun still well above the horizon and pasture bathed in late afternoon light. As the day began to close, the heifer struck out north, heading away from the herd and toward a quiet, sheltered corner of the pasture. She moved slowly with a waddling gait, tail cocked and slightly extended. I’d just finished weighing, tagging and vaccinating four new calves and was ready for my supper. I was taking one last spin through the herd on my way to the house when I saw her moving north with a purpose.

Close observation is one of the keys to keeping calving mortality low. For those fixed to do so, watching the herd closely during calving season allows the producer to catch problems early, before they can kill a calf, a cow, or even both. Though close observation takes time and fuel, both of which add directly to production expense, such costs are more easily borne in the context of live versus dead calves. As they say, you can't sell a dead calf.

As I watched her, the heifer was clearly agitated. She tried to graze, but would take only a few bites of grass before she'd pause and stare off into the distance. Then she would lower her head and sniff the ground, then quickly turn and look back along her flank in an effort to see what was going on back there. In trying to catch a glimpse of her bedeviler, she'd turn sharply in a circle, once, twice, three times – like a slow-motion version of a spinning rodeo bull. Finally she'd stopped, absentmindedly bite at a few dried sweetclover stalks, then abruptly lay down.

Soon she stretched out completely on her side, taking a position cows rarely take except when calving. Soon, I think, soon. Laying in tall, dried sweetclover as she is, it’s hard for me to see the details I want to see. But with my trusty binoculars I can see enough. Time for me to be patient.

In only a few minutes the heifer is back on her feet, repeating her earlier behavior, half-heartedly grazing, staring into the distance, looking back and spinning around, chewing on dried sweetclover, then laying down once again. A northerly breeze begins to flow across the prairie, waving the sweetclover and carrying the sounds the heifer is making to my ear. As she continues her parturition dance, she lows softly and repeatedly.

As I watch over the next three hours, the sun fades over the west horizon and night comes. I begin to worry a bit, wondering whether the heifer will need help or not. My fears are premature, though, for she has not yet produced the amniotic sac or “bag of waters,” let alone any sign of the calf. As the minutes tick by, I reach down at flick on the radio, allowing the magic sounds of nighttime baseball to fill the close air of my pickup cab.

Far away in Pittsburgh, on the banks of the famous Three Rivers, the Rockies and Pirates are tied as the ninth inning begins. I listen to the action, seeing PNC Park with my minds eye, the perfection of an emerald diamond and lush outfield dotted with white- and gray-clad players, surrounded by thousands of intense Iron City fans. I hear the fans roar at the crack of bat on ball, sigh and groan as ball slaps leather and another scoring try is defeated. I think of how remarkable it is that I can sit in a cow pasture 1,240 miles distant and listen in to the action taking place in a ballpark snugged in tight against the Allegheny River.

With baseball sounds and half-seen images as a backdrop, I watch the heifer get on with her business of ushering new life into the world. With the onset of true darkness, she seems to settle down and work with determination. Soon she’s straining with a will, and within ten minutes she’s produced a dark-wet calf. The pair lay still for a few moments, resting after their tremendous effort. Through my binoculars I can see the calf breathing, can see that its nose and mouth are clear. Soon it begins to shake its head and move its legs, which prompts the new mother to get up and investigate.

The cow sniffs the calf at first, then with a deep low of contentment, begins to vigorously lick and nuzzle her new charge. Within a few minutes the calf totters to its feet and makes its unsteady way to the udder. After a few moments its tail begins to flick back and forth as it finds the teat and rich, life-giving colostrum.

I smile as I watch, surrounded by nature’s beauty and the wonder and the magic of baseball. Spring is a wonderful time of the year.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


How does the saying go? If you want to give god a good chuckle, make some plans.

I had planned to post up the first part of a series on the use of antibiotics in food animals this week. But things didn't work out as planned.

I woke up last Friday morning with something wrong with the vision in my right eye. Things were clear in the left, blurry in the right. Not terribly blurry, but enough to bother me. The right eye felt full, too, almost as if someone had popped me a good one and given me a shiner. In the mirror, though, there was no black eye, no swelling. As nearly as I could tell, both eyes looked normal. But the blurry vision persisted, seeming almost like I was looking through a nearly transparent curtain.

As the day progressed, the eye stayed pretty much the same, but toward evening I started seeing fleeting shadows and bright spots in my peripheral vision. There was no pain, and only the fairly mild symptoms I described above. Maybe I was just tired, I thought. With the onset of calving I’d been putting in a lot of hours.

Saturday morning brought no change, however. The eye was no worse, no better. I decided to give it another day. No change Sunday morning. I managed to muddle through the weekend, but by Monday morning I knew I needed to get it checked out. So off to Cheyenne.

I’m blessed and fortunate to be able to get my medical care through the Veterans Administration system. I called ahead, talked to a nurse, and reported to the emergency room at the VA Medical Center.

Almost before I could take a seat in the waiting room, I was whisked in to see the ER doc, then quickly whisked upstairs to ophthalmology. Within a few more minutes the eye doctor was putting drops in my eyes and conducting a thorough examination. When she completed the exam she said that there were signs of swelling at the optic nerve in my right eye. My symptoms and the swelling, she said, were consistent with Giant Cell Arteritis (GCA), also called Temporal Arteritis. GCA is an immune disorder, related to Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). The cause of GCA, just as in RA, is unknown. The pathology of the disease – how it affects the body – is the formation of so-called giant, multinucleated cells in the lining of medium and large arteries, commonly those in the head. The giant cells are a form of swelling, and the swelling reduces the flow of blood through the affected arteries. In my case, the swelling was probably reducing blood flow through the optic artery, which supplies the eye, she said.

If the blood flow to the eye is reduced for long enough, or interrupted entirely, the eye doctor said, it would lead to loss of vision in the eye. Blindness, in other words. This is why, she quickly added, that she would treat my symptoms as a medical emergency. The important thing is to quickly reduce the swelling, she said, and for that they would give me intravenous steroids for 24 hours.

So back to the ER, where I was punctured for lab work and an IV. Within a few minutes the crack ER staff had administered 250 mg of an IV corticosteroid. Over the next 24 hours I received three more doses of the steroid at six-hour intervals. By the time I had the second dose, the feeling of pressure in my eye was easing, though the vision remained blurred.

On Tuesday morning the eye doctor put me on oral steroids and scheduled me for an MRI on Wednesday, to take a close look at my eyes and at the vasculature of my head. “Hmm,” I thought, “maybe there’s something in there after all.”

The eye doctor also scheduled me for a biopsy of my right temporal artery on Friday. The only way to confirm the diagnosis, she said, is to look at a piece of artery under the microscope and see if the giant cells are present.

While this turn of events has been sudden and has come as something of a shock, it looks (as I write this) like we caught the problem soon enough to give me the chance of an excellent outcome. Only time, and a few more tests, will tell.

One thing is certain, though. The care I continue to receive through the VA system is absolutely top-notch and state of the art. The staff of the Cheyenne VA Medical Center are simply wonderful, from top to bottom. They do a tough job and see an enormous number of patients. They are always busy. Yet they take the time to treat each patient as an individual, and go out of their way to treat each veteran as an important person. At some point, nearly every staff member I’ve met has thanked me for my service. The level of concern and quality of care shows that those are much more than empty words.

Regardless of how this thing turns out, I’ll never be able to adequately tell the Cheyenne VA staff how very much their care and dedication mean to me. And by extension, since you taxpayers foot the bill, how very grateful I am to each and every one of you.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

It's not rocket science

Last week I had an interesting exchange with a reader regarding the use of antibiotics in food animals. While we don’t agree on how antibiotics should be used, my reader and I do agree that understanding basic science is extremely important when it comes to assessing reports on this (or nearly any) topic addressed in the media in general.

Let me point out here that there's nothing wrong with, and everything right with, divergent informed opinions. My reader is an extremely bright person and one whose opinion I value a great deal. Objective debate is one of the best learning tools ever developed.

The reader pointed me to an article posted in a blog at Discover Magazine’s Web site. The article – about gene transfer among E. coli bacteria – was interesting, though at a slight tangent to our discussion of antibiotic use in food animals. The name of the blog, however, caught my attention and forced my thinking in a new and promising direction. A tiny “ah-ha” moment in the life of a curious person.

The biggest problem in the debate, which seeks to answer whether the use of antibiotics in food animals causes the development of antibiotic resistant bacterial strains that threaten human health, has nothing to do with food animals, antibiotics, or bacteria. The problem is getting thoughtful people on the same page so far as understanding the basic science of the debate. The major media and many science writers have fallen short in this.

I'm going to make Katie Couric stand as the typical media journalist here. I’ve taken Couric to task before. It’s not fair to appoint her the  representative of her profession, but life isn’t fair, and my points are valid.

The approach Couric chose to take in reporting on the debate was to take sides, assign blame, and sensationalize. These things are forbidden by the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. To do this she cherry-picked data from several studies, reporting only those data that supported her side of the argument and ignoring data from the same studies which did not support her side.

In essence, her special report stated that U.S. farmers are knowingly putting the health of food consumers in jeopardy by pumping their livestock full of antibiotics. This practice, she argued, causes the development of antibiotic resistant bacterial strains which are directly passed to humans who consume animal food products. She sensationalized the story by announcing that “…drug resistant infections have sky-rocketed over the past two decades, killing an estimated 70,000 Americans last year alone.” U.S. farmers, she said, are knowingly, though indirectly, causing these deaths in their zeal to increase profits.

Branding, vaccinating, and treating calves for parasites during fall weaning on the EJE Ranch near Kimball, Neb.
In thinking about why many major media reporters, and even some scientists, seem to be willing to hide or alter information, I had long ago drawn the conclusion that they were willing to cast aside professional ethics for what was in their mind (or in their collective narrative) the “greater good,” and that they were aided in this by an unknowing and unfortunately scientifically illiterate public.

If so many media types are bent on duping the public, thought I, then my own professional responsibility must be to educate the public. Nice theory, but wrong. I had fallen neatly into the same trap that snapped up Couric and so many of her peers.

Reading the blog post suggested by my reader, or rather, reading the name of the blog, snapped my thinking onto a new avenue. The name of the blog? Not Exactly Rocket Science.

In thinking about the name of the blog, I thought about how true it is as a statement of the fundamental character of science. Not even rocket science is rocket science, at least not by the definition of the very popular phrase. You know the one, where one person chides another who is struggling with a seemingly simple problem. “C’mon Joe, it’s not rocket science.”

But as I said, neither is rocket science. In fact, while rocket science is complex, it is simply the application (for the most part) of Newtonian physics, the basics of which have been known for centuries and which nearly all of us are introduced to in elementary school as the laws of motion.

As I thought about this, I realized it was simply wrong to accuse the U.S. population in general of being scientifically illiterate.

If you’re able to read this, and most of you are, then you’ve almost certainly been introduced to the basics of scientific methodology. And those basics are pretty straightforward. You think about a problem and you wonder “why?” In thinking about it, you come up with a possible explanation, or hypothesis. You think about it some more and come up with a way to test your hypothesis in an experiment. The results of your experiment tell you whether the hypothesis was right or wrong, and if it was wrong, you often get a feel for how far off you were and an idea of how to refine your hypothesis into a theory.

The scientific method seems to be fundamental to the way we all learn and grow in knowledge. From the earliest age, we observe and explore our environment, trying and learning new things, finding what works and what doesn’t work.

In doing science, however, we have to add rigorous honesty and objectivity to the mix. These things are the foundation of science, and when honesty and objectivity are lacking, the resulting product is a sham, little better than astrology or tarot card reading.

In one sense, it’s a bit unfair to expect lay people to apply rigor to the process of understanding the stories they view, listen to or read. But as I’ve said, the world isn’t fair. If the individual wants to better understand the world, the individual must do the work of thinking honestly and objectively.
Grandkids feed bottle-calf Haji on the EJE Ranch.

Journalists, on the other hand, have a code of ethics to fall back on. Manipulating data is ethically wrong, and I hold journalists who do so in contempt. There are some few signs pointing toward a slow, halting return to ethical standards in journalism. This should be strongly encouraged.

I'll write more on the use of antibiotics in food animals. It's an important topic for food producers and consumers alike. From a rancher's perspective, antibiotics provide an important tool for keeping livestock healthy so that they can become safe and nutritious food. From the consumer's perspective, objective information about food production is at a premium, particularly when so many are fed by so few, and only a small fraction of consumers have any experience with agriculture. I hope you’ll follow and enjoy the series, but most of all I hope you’ll read it with a skeptical eye, checking my data and hypotheses and calling me to task where I stray from the path of objectivity.