Obama takes food safety to heart; but is Sasha's lunch determining policy?

Sasha Obama loves peanut butter sandwiches, eating them "several times a week," according to President Obama's weekly address on Friday.

So when Obama announces his policies for food safety, it's with her very much in mind. When he first heard the news of the Peanut Corporation of America salmonella outbreak, he thought of her. "No parent should have to worry that their child is going to get sick from their lunch," he said.

Obama's new food policy is all about safety from salmonella. In his comments, he labeled the U.S. food safety system as a "hazard to public health," and the series of food contaminations over the past few years a "painful reminder of how tragic the consequences can be when food producers act irresponsibly and government is unable to do its job," and announced the creation of a Food Safety Working Group. His new appointee for FDA commissioner, former New York City Health Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, will head the working group.

Hamburg's appointment, along with her deputy, Baltimore Health Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein, is telling. Both have worked closely with problems close to parents' hearts; Hamburg is a bioterrorism expert and has dealt with serious health crises, from drug-resistant TB to the early AIDS epidemic in New York, while Sharfstein, a pediatrician, was instrumental in changing labeling for children's cold medicine. The new FDA will protect kids' lunchroom favorites, and will cast a critical eye toward the drugs marketed to them.

But while Obama announced the elimination of a loophole allowing so-called "downer" cows to be slaughtered if they passed an additional veterinary screening, perhaps even louder was his silence on new concerns about "prophylactic" antibiotics in animal feed raised by New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof.

In his two-part series this week, Kristof leads us to blame "the routine use -- make that the insane overuse -- of antibiotics in livestock feed" for the development of MRSA and bugs like it.

MRSA is a "superbug," a particularly virulent form of a disease that has evolved resistance to commonly used antibiotics, the kinds most often used in animal feed. MRSA is a scary condition that infects humans: it is, literally, a flesh-eating bacteria, which can occur as a rash and (often enormous) sores, or can also lead to heart inflammation.

In 2004, a strain of MRSA erupted in the Netherlands, where a study found pig farmers were 760 times more likely than the general population to carry MRSA (whether or not symptoms erupted).

Worst of all, it's often fatal, and was most awfully and ironically a factor in the death of Dr. Tom Anderson, a family doctor in a small town in Indiana who had contacted Kristof last year, ready to "blow the whistle" on the prevalence of MRSA in his town and other areas where hogs are grown in factory farm settings.

What Kristof and many other organizations are after: a ban on the use of antibiotics in animal feed. It's already a reality in Europe and other nations (including, as Kristof points out, South Korea). Any doctor (especially pediatricians) will tell you how badly our society overused antibiotics in the past several decades to treat common diseases. Perhaps fewer of them have blamed antibiotics in animal feed, but scientists are beginning to focus on this as a public health crisis.

It's no secret that big farm interests are decidedly in favor of the continued silence from government agencies on the use of antibiotics. It's far easier and more economical to grow animals in concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, where close quarters make for many diseases. And it very well could be that Sasha and Malia don't eat ham, or sausages, or bacon, or any other pork products for lunch. Could Obama be focusing on salmonella (though it's killed far, far fewer Americans than MRSA) because it's closer to home? Or is it just too close to big farm lobbyists, and their interests, for comfort?

Food safety is a priority -- as long as it's not harming the deep-pocketed food lobby, including Smithfield Foods Inc (SFD), Tyson Foods Inc. (TSN), and Monsanto (MON). I doubt we'll see big moves in this arena soon, although the public that does eat bacon might start doing the math, and demand it.


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