The small-farm-warrior, big-city-writer Mark Bittman wrote yesterday in the Times about the newly released disturbing (and unsurprising) results of a study conducted a couple of years ago in North Carolina on hog farms. North Carolina is the second biggest pork producing state in the US (Iowa being no. 1). The study wanted to determine and compare the existence of MRSA and MDRSA in workers at confinement hog farms and workers at pasture-based farms. Nick and I were two of those studied representing workers on the latter. Our noses were swabbed and we answered some very detailed questions about our sanitation efforts when dealing with livestock. From the above photo I think you can see, we would get quite close to our pigs. In fact this photo is from hours after a sow had farrowed in the stables adjacent to our home. Nick and I had a slow afternoon on the farm and sat there, at her rear watching each baby piglet slip out, gain near immediate control of their legs and make their way around to the large display of milky teats.
Pigs that live in confinement (literal concrete slabs, and sometimes cages for sows) receive routine prophylactic antibiotics to keep them alive when their living conditions and feed would otherwise kill them. Prophylactic treatment is preventative. The antibiotics are given assuming that the pig will get sick. Otherwise you could treat pigs therapeutically after an animal shows signs of sickness.
When hogs are treated prophylactically they can develop a strain of bacteria resistant to the antibiotics administered. This bacteria is commonly known as MRSA. The study shows that workers at these confinement farms are more likely than workers at pasture-based farms to carry this drug resistant bacteria. Typically antibiotics are administered therapeutically or not at all on pasture-based farms.
Bittman writes a much more cohesive overview of this study as did Maryn Mckenna for Wired last week. I recommend reading both.
It is scary stuff. The pigs we grow in the most inhumane conditions we can fathom get sick from their living conditions. We pump them full of antibiotics to keep them from dying. We do this so often that the pigs become hosts to MRSA and it appears from this study that MRSA is then passed on to farm workers from close contact with the pigs. If the workers have it, its only a matter of time before they pass it onto their household members. And then that shit spreads. Very hollywood.
Just another reason to stop supporting factory farms. Start supporting farms where the workers can kiss a pig on the nose without fear of a staph infection.