Environment, public health

Superbug alert: Mutant gene found in U.S. swine farm makes bacteria resistant to antibiotics

A photo of enterobacteria, which are rod-like and can cause serious infections in humans. A new gene found in swine could make it resistant to even the strongest drugs.

Enterobacteria cause serious infections, and a new gene found in swine could make it resistant to even the strongest drugs. (Photo: Google images)

This post has been updated with a statement from the National Pork Board.

A wayward gene has wandered onto a U.S. swine farm, inserted itself into sows and piglets and created a bacteria that is resistant to drugs of last resort.

The study, conducted by Ohio State University, did not name the swine farm, nor did it identify the location. Update 5:53 p.m.: Andy Curliss of the NC Pork Council told NCPW that the farm is not in North Carolina.

However, we do know that the farm had about 1,500 swine and that “the sows give birth in tight pens” — aka gestation crates (a favorite “production method” of state Rep. Jimmy Dixon) — and the piglets are taken to separate pens of 25 each after they are weaned. Researchers theorize that the pigs, which are housed in tight quarters, passed the gene around.

From the story:

“No pigs scheduled for slaughter carried the mutant gene, the researchers stressed, and they haven’t found any threat to people yet. And none of the pigs were sick. But the mutant should not have been on the farm at all and they have no idea how it got there.”

Researchers are now worried that the altered bacteria could enter the food supply through raw meat. Humans infected with the bacteria could then become resistant to a class of antibiotics known as carbapenems. These antibiotics are deployed when other drugs fail. They are used to treat serious bacterial infections such as bronchitis, meningitis, septicemia and kidney infections — all potentially fatal, especially in people with depressed immune systems.

A type of antibiotic-resistant germ called carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE, are especially dangerous, the story reported. If they get into the bloodstream and cause an infection, CRE germs kill half their victims.

North Carolina researchers announced in October that they had discovered antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria in young children whose parent or parents worked at industrialized hog farms in the eastern part of the state.

Crowded conditions make hogs, chickens, cattle and other livestock prone to infections, which in turn, compels farmers to dose them with antibiotics. (The situation is similar to human health outbreaks in jails, nursing homes, day cares and schools, all the equivalent of giant petri dishes.) Public health and environmental advocates have both called for farmers to use fewer antibiotics in their hogs, especially to boost growth. Pasture-raised and free-range animals also require fewer antibiotics.

Representatives from the NC Department of Agriculture could not be reached this morning for comment. The National Pork Board released a statement today.

 “The National Pork Board today reacted to the recent research paper from the Ohio State University research study detailing the researchers’ discovery of an antibiotic-resistant gene in one farrowing barn.
According to the National Pork Board, an important takeaway from the study is that the U.S. pork supply is safe. The resistant gene identified in the study was not found in a market hog, and there was no threat to food safety.
As experts in swine production, the Pork Checkoff is eager to analyze the initial findings, alongside its authors, and better understand results of this report from this farm. Specifically, resistant gene samples were found in one barn, on one site without any confirmed indication of how the resistant gene got there.
Ohio State University researchers acknowledge that it is unknown how the Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) bacteria was introduced to the facility and that it could have been introduced by an outside source. The conclusions drawn without further validation, replication and research demonstrate this issue requires additional study.
The fact that CRE was found in one area of the farm indicates that current internal biosecurity measures are effective. The U.S. pork industry supports efforts to monitor for the occurrence of this type of isolated incident. However, consistent with FDA and Pork Quality Assurance® Plus requirements, Ceftiofur [a type of antibiotic] should only be used in the treatment and control of disease with veterinarian oversight and direction.
Pig farmers in many states voluntarily participate in the Ohio State University’s Public Health Preparedness for Infectious Diseases Program. These producers take part in this research to better understand emerging disease issues. The National Pork Board agrees that more studies be performed to validate and attempt to replicate the finding. The National Pork Board looks forward to learning more about ongoing surveillance efforts that protect human and animal health.”


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