There aren’t many news items that get your attention faster than a story about a food recall. Whether it’s listeria in cantaloupes or salmonella in peanut butter, the news that the food we eat and feed our families might be contaminated is unsettling.
Most of the time the outbreak is limited to some other part of the country and it’s easy to think we here in Maine are safe. But that wasn’t the case just before Christmas when the news broke that ground beef sold at Hannaford stores in Maine and around the Northeast was linked to a rare strain of salmonella. To date, 19 people have been infected with this strain of salmonella, 14 of them having reported eating ground beef before getting sick.
One aspect of this outbreak that is most worrisome is the fact that this particular strain of salmonella is resistant to the most common antibiotics. Although the infections have responded to some drugs, a number of antibiotics normally used to treat salmonella have proved ineffective against this strain.
The incidence of drug-resistant infections in farm animals has been on the rise since large-scale cattle, hog and chicken growers started adding antibiotics to feed. These antibiotics help ward off some of the disease that comes when animals are packed into tighter quarters and fed lower quality feed. The drugs also change the animals’ metabolism, allowing them to put on weight more quickly.
In other words, antibiotics in animal feed do nothing to improve the health of the animals; they just let these giant factory farmers cut costs and make more money.
When antibiotics that have been used judiciously in treating infection in humans are given to animals on a daily basis, it doesn’t take long for new, drug-resistant forms of diseases to emerge.
And, as we have seen this winter, contaminated meat can transfer those strains to humans.
This is a problem born out of large-scale feed lots — factory farms that process massive quantities of animals that are shipped all across the country — and should serve as another reminder of why it’s so important for us to rebuild our local food systems.
Hard-to-trace outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant salmonella infections spread over several states aren’t the result of small farmers who sell their product locally. Instead, it’s most often a combination of massive feed-lot operations, giant slaughterhouses and antibiotic-laced feed that leads to outbreaks and recalls.
It is precisely because local and regional food systems have disappeared that we have become more vulnerable to outbreaks of food-borne illnesses that can quickly spread over a large area.
Last year, I introduced the Local Farms and Food Act, a comprehensive package of proposals designed to encourage local and regional food systems and tear down some of the barriers that we’ve put in the way of local food.
Since the 1970s, government policy has pushed our agriculture system in the other direction and it’s time to turn that around. My bill includes dozens of proposals to help rebuild our local and regional food systems, including:
• Making it easier for schools to use more of their federal funding to buy fresh, local foods.
• Making it easier for low-income families to use food stamp benefits at farmers markets.
• Supporting improvements in agricultural infrastructure — things such as local slaughterhouses and food distribution networks.
• Creating a new crop insurance program tailored to the needs of diversified or organic farmers who grow a wide variety of crops and can’t easily access traditional crop insurance.
It’s only a matter of time before there is another case of contaminated food that leads to more drug-resistant infections. And while regulators should move more quickly to clamp down on the use of antibiotics in animal feed, these outbreaks are symptoms of a much bigger problem that can only be solved by rebuilding a food system that supports local food and farms.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree represents Maine’s 1st District.