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“Routine Securities Taken For Granted”: Essential Government Tasks Need Reliable Funding

Here’s hoping that Stewart Parnell goes to prison.

The former president of the now-bankrupt Peanut Corp. of America, Parnell ran a filthy Georgia processing plant contaminated with salmonella that injured more than 600 people in a 2008-2009 outbreak, killing nine. Last month, federal prosecutors charged Parnell and three others with criminal offenses, claiming the executives intentionally shipped out contaminated peanut products.

It’s about time that white-collar criminals whose actions result in death or horrible injuries have to do the perp walk, just like the leeches who sell narcotics to kids. Former workers and federal inspectors say the plant, located in the small southeast Georgia town of Blakely, was a breeding ground for bacteria — with a leaky roof, dirty floors, mold on the ceiling and walls, and rats and roaches everywhere.

Still, it’s not enough to know that Parnell is finally going before the bar of justice. I also want a vigorous and assertive government that will help ensure that plants like Parnell’s Blakely facility won’t be free to operate in the future.

With President Obama battling Republicans over government spending, it’s easy to forget the important functions that federal agencies carry on every day. The Washington commentariat has concluded the agreement — known as “sequestration” — that produced shortsighted budget cuts hasn’t caused any harm to the majority of Americans, an indication, in that view, that Obama oversold the consequences of the cuts.

Is that true? The fact is we may never know how much harm will be done by those cuts. We don’t know how many children will miss their vaccinations, how many Head Start teachers will be laid off, or how many food inspections will be skipped.

The line between cause and effect is especially hard to draw in the work of those federal agencies whose jobs are aimed at prevention. The inspectors at the Food and Drug Administration have done their jobs well when you don’t hear of a food-borne illness or a faulty medical product. That sort of work is essential, but its results are hard to measure. And it never attracts public attention of the sort that ensures big budgets.

After the Blakely fiasco, Congress passed laws beefing up the powers given to the FDA. The agency used that new authority to shut down a New Mexico peanut processing plant that was implicated in a 2012 salmonella outbreak.

That decision came after the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (another federally funded agency) and state and local health departments tracked the outbreak to that specific plant, run by Sunland Inc. That outbreak sickened dozens.

I don’t know — and neither do you — whether the CDC will continue to have all the resources it needs to track deadly diseases with the across-the-board spending cuts dictated by GOP intransigence. I don’t know whether the Consumer Protection Agency will be able to track down all the lead-tinged toys coming in from China. I don’t know whether the FDA will be able to shut down the next Sunland before hundreds are hurt.

But I do know this: When I fix my 4-year-old a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, I should not have to worry about whether she’ll get food poisoning. When you buy peanut butter crackers from a convenience store to placate your growling tummy on a road trip, you shouldn’t fear that eating them will send you to an emergency room.

Those are routine securities that we take for granted because we live in an affluent, developed nation with government regulations for food safety. However, those protections cost money. They don’t come free.

I’ve eaten in countries where there were no pesky government regulations keeping the milk pasteurized and the water free of parasites and the cooked meat free of harmful bacteria. I’ll take more government — with its higher costs — any day.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, March 9, 2013

March 10, 2013 Posted by | Public Health, Sequestration | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When Food Kills: A Threat To Public Health

The deaths of 31 peoplein Europe from a little-known strain of E. coli have raised alarms worldwide, but we shouldn’t be surprised. Our food often betrays us.

Just a few days ago, a 2-year-old girl in Dryden, Va., died in a hospital after suffering bloody diarrhea linked to another strain of E. coli. Her brother was also hospitalized but survived.

Every year in the United States, 325,000 people are hospitalized because of food-borne illnesses and 5,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s right: food kills one person every two hours.

Yet while the terrorist attacks of 2001 led us to transform the way we approach national security, the deaths of almost twice as many people annually have still not generated basic food-safety initiatives. We have an industrial farming system that is a marvel for producing cheap food, but its lobbyists block initiatives to make food safer.

Perhaps the most disgraceful aspect of our agricultural system — I say this as an Oregon farmboy who once raised sheep, cattle and hogs — is the way antibiotics are recklessly stuffed into healthy animals to make them grow faster.

The Food and Drug Administration reported recently that 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States go to livestock, not humans. And 90 percent of the livestock antibiotics are administered in their food or water, typically to healthy animals to keep them from getting sick when they are confined in squalid and crowded conditions.

The single state of North Carolina uses more antibiotics for livestock than the entire United States uses for humans.

This cavalier use of low-level antibiotics creates a perfect breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant pathogens. The upshot is that ailments can become pretty much untreatable.

The Infectious Diseases Society of America, a professional organization of doctors, cites the case of Josh Nahum, a 27-year-old skydiving instructor in Colorado. He developed a fever from bacteria that would not respond to medication. The infection spread and caused tremendous pressure in his skull.

Some of his brain was pushed into his spinal column, paralyzing him. He became a quadriplegic depending on a ventilator to breathe. Then, a couple of weeks later, he died.

There’s no reason to link Nahum’s case specifically to agricultural overuse, for antibiotic resistance has multiple causes that are difficult to unravel. Doctors overprescribe them. Patients misuse them. But looking at numbers, by far the biggest element of overuse is agriculture.

We would never think of trying to keep our children healthy by adding antibiotics to school water fountains, because we know this would breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It’s unconscionable that Big Ag does something similar for livestock.

Louise Slaughter, the only microbiologist in the United States House of Representatives, has been fighting a lonely battle to curb this practice — but industrial agricultural interests have always blocked her legislation.

“These statistics tell the tale of an industry that is rampantly misusing antibiotics in an attempt to cover up filthy, unsanitary living conditions among animals,” Slaughter said. “As they feed antibiotics to animals to keep them healthy, they are making our families sicker by spreading these deadly strains of bacteria.”

Vegetarians may think that they’re immune, but they’re not. E. coli originates in animals but can spill into water used to irrigate vegetables, contaminating them. The European E. coli outbreak apparently arose from bean sprouts grown on an organic farm in Germany.

One of the most common antibiotic-resistant pathogens is MRSA, which now kills more Americans annually than AIDS and adds hugely to America’s medical costs. MRSA has many variants, and one of the more benign forms now is widespread in hog barns and among people who deal with hogs. An article this year in a journal called Applied and Environmental Microbiology reported that MRSA was found in 70 percent of hogs on one farm.

Another scholarly journal reported that MRSA was found in 45 percent of employees working at hog farms. And the Centers for Disease Control reported this April that this strain of bacteria has now been found in a worker at a day care center in Iowa.

Other countries are moving to ban the feeding of antibiotics to livestock. But in the United States, the agribusiness lobby still has a hold on Congress.

The European outbreak should shake people up. “It points to the whole broken system,” notes Robert Martin of the Pew Environment Group.

We need more comprehensive inspections in the food system, more testing for additional strains of E. coli, and more public education (always wash your hands after touching raw meat, and don’t use the same cutting board for meat and vegetables). A great place to start reforms would be by banning the feeding of antibiotics to healthy livestock.

By: Nicholas D. Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, June 11, 2011

June 13, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Consumers, Corporations, Environment, Government, Homeland Security, Lobbyists, Politics, Public Health | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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