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.
“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.