By Kayla Sargent
“Tick tock tick tock tick tock.”
That familiar sound often snaps the attention of a viewer away from their phone during a commercial break back to the nation’s oldest and most-viewed investigative news segment – 60 Minutes.
On Sunday, January 5, fifteen minutes of the hour-long show was devoted to what many agriculture producers call a “hit piece” on the pork industry. Journalist Lesley Stahl tackled the subject of antibiotic resistance, linking it to a multidrug resistant Salmonella outbreak tied to roaster pigs in Washington state in 2015.
Of the segment discussing the pork industry and perceived issues attached to it, less than two-minutes were spent with National Pork Producer Council (NPPC) Chief Veterinarian Dr. Liz Wagstrom. The remaining 13 minutes were occupied by interviews with Washington state epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist and George Washington University microbiologist Dr. Lance Price.
Dr. Lindquist was tasked with investigating the Salmonella outbreak and traced it back to Kapowsin Meats, he told Stahl early in the interview. Kapowsin Meats recalled 116,262 pounds of pork on August 13, 2015. At that time, USDA inspectors found the Salmonella bacteria on whole hogs, pork products, and the facilities, according to an outbreak summary by the Center for Diseases Control. Two weeks later, the recall was expanded to 523,380 pounds of pork and Kapowsin Meats suspended operations. A confirmed total of 192 individuals were infected in that particular outbreak, with 30 hospitalizations and zero deaths, the CDC reported. Today, Kapowsin Meats is no longer in operation.
Biosecurity on Hog Farms…
Dr. Lindquist expressed frustration on 60 Minutes when Stahl asked if the outbreak was the fault of the slaughterhouse or the farm where the hogs were raised. He was able to trace the bacteria as far as the slaughterhouse and wanted to conduct on-farm sampling to see if the “exact DNA fingerprint” of the particular bacteria was present there. Kapowsin Meats told him the hogs came from a Montana farm, but Dr. Lindquist was never able to arrange a farm visit for further investigation, according to 60 Minutes.
Stahl said the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) issued Dr. Lindquist a letter denying his request to visit the farm. According to Stahl, the letter signed by Dr. Wagstrom said, “I know that you do not want any inadvertent negative consequences to farms as a result of this proposed on-farm sampling.”
Dr. Wagstrom explained in her brief appearance on the segment that by the time Dr. Lindquist requested samples, it was five months post-outbreak. Dr. Wagstrom said at that point, if the Salmonella was found on the Montana hog farm, it would be impossible to tell if that was the origin of the outbreak, or if the truck brought the bacteria back from the slaughterhouse.
Dr. Lindquist told Stahl that was not the case.
“I think they didn’t want me to make the farms look bad,” Dr. Lindquist said.
He said he would use code names for confidentiality. Stahl told Dr. Wagstrom, “he had gone out of his way to assure you and the farmers that he wouldn’t even name them.” However, due to the state of origin, Dr. Wagstrom said it would be easy to identify said farms.
Stahl proposed the 60 Minutes news crew visit a pig farm to which Dr. Wagstrom raised biosecurity concerns.
“If I were to go to a pig farm, as a veterinarian, I’ll take a shower. I’ll shower in and use shampoo so I don’t carry any diseases into the barn,” Dr. Wagstrom explained.
Stahl offered that her crew would follow biosecurity guidelines and Dr. Wagstrom noted she was not in the position to set up a tour, the best she could do was ask. The tour was never arranged, according to Stahl. NPPC offered footage to use for the segment.
Dr. Price, the microbiologist, explained to Stahl how antibiotic-resistant bacteria enter the human body through consumption of meat products, or even packaging on the kitchen counter. He said many of these infections cannot be treated as they are already resistant to antibiotics.
“Because the animals get sick under those conditions, cramming them together, stressing them out,” Dr. Price said referring to concentrated hog operations, “they give them low doses of antibiotics all the time to try to prevent those infections.”
Stahl carried the accusation on to Dr. Wagstrom.
“What we’ve been told is that some of these farms take these pigs and just put them, tightly packed, into an area. And they’re so tightly packed that they get stressed and therefore they get preventative antibiotics,” Stahl said.
Dr. Wagstrom responded, noting that her concern is a “common misconception.” Dr. Wagstrom called it an “improper stocking density.” While there is no legislation which dictates stocking capacity on hog farms, she explained that the “incentive for farmers to do the right thing is really high.”
Stahl countered her, suggesting that oversight may be necessary.
“There’s no oversight,” Stahl said. “These farms have somehow won the right to keep people off the farm to inspect. I don’t understand how the farmers got this right to make sure we can’t find out for sure.”
Dr. Wagstrom attempted to reassure her that those “concerns” were “unnecessary” as “we’re trying to do everything we can to do the right thing.”
Dr. Price said the idea that “farmers” are being protected is flawed though.
“You’ve got these big, in some cases, multinational companies that are messing with our food safety system. But they hide behind this image of an American farmer,” Dr. Price told Stahl. “‘Why can’t we regulate the use of antibiotics on the farm?’ ‘Oh, we’ve got to protect the American farmer. That would be encroachment by the government.’ ‘Why can’t we test these animals on the farm to see if they’re carrying dangerous pathogens?’ ‘Oh, that would hurt the farmer. We got to protect the guy in the overalls.’ But this is not a guy in overalls. This is a guy in a suit with a Maserati, you know. I mean, these are big companies that we’re protecting and by protecting them, we’re hurting ourselves.”
Stahl matter-of-factly noted on the segment that “in 2017, the Food and Drug Administration told farmers to stop using antibiotics in animals for growth purposes, but here’s the loophole: they are permitted to use them for disease prevention and there are no reporting requirements.”
She asked Dr. Wagstrom if she would support regulation requiring antibiotic usage reports. Dr. Wagstrom offered that she would support discussion around the topic. No mention was made of the veterinary feed directive that is already in place for concentrated animal feeding operations across the country today.
Dr. Price argued that “the agriculture industry has too much power over regulation policies.” In particular, he raised concern about the new swine inspection system that was recently finalized by the USDA in order to modernize a system that had not been updated for 50 years.
“I don’t see modernization,” Dr. Price said. “I see just straight up deregulation in an industry that you want regulated.”
Dr. Price said the new system allows slaughterhouses to set their own line speed.
In a written statement to 60 Minutes, USDA assured that line inspectors are still expected to conduct an “inspection of each carcass” and even “slow or stop the line” if a problem is found.
Stahl concluded the segment noting that the number of inspectors has been reduced by 40 percent and high-level federal inspectors will be added to inspect plant safety and sanitation. According to Stahl, some of the inspection will fall to plant employees whom, Dr. Price said, are not mandated to undergo any training.
Neither USDA nor NPPC responded during the 60 Minutes segment to that particular concern.
Wait A Minute… Here’s The Facts
The following day, NPPC issued a detailed statement defending their producers and sharing “what consumers should know about U.S. pork.”
“The story that aired included less than two minutes of Dr. Wagstrom’s comments and failed to include critical information about modern pork production. The U.S. pork industry has an excellent food safety record and NPPC is proud to represent hog farmers who provide the safest, healthiest and most affordable pork in the world,” NPPC’s statement explained.
The statement addressed each of the concerns raised by the 60 Minutes segment including food safety, antibiotic usage, the new swine inspection system and biosecurity.
NPPC said U.S. pork producers follow both government regulations and production standards outlined by the Pork Quality Assurance Plus program to ensure the product they raise is safe for consumption. The organization pointed out that food safety is a “team effort” which involves farmers, butchers, cooks and consumers.
The industry also supported regulations which were adopted three years ago that requires “veterinary oversight and limiting the use of antibiotics important for human medicine.” These regulations require a client-patient relationship between every farm and a licensed veterinarian. Only those veterinarians can prescribe antibiotic usage on the farm. Since 2015, antibiotic sales for use in livestock have decreased 41 percent.
“Although there’s broad scientific acknowledgement that the use of antibiotics in people is the primary source of antibiotic resistance, agriculture is committed to responsible use in animals to minimize any contribution,” NPPC assured.
NPPC said the new swine inspection system is backed by years of research and is “designed to increase efficiency and effectiveness of the federal inspection process and to provide more flexibility for adopting new food-safety technologies.” The group reiterated that USDA “maintains absolute authority and accountability for inspection.”
Finally, NPPC noted that pig health “is a top priority, so farmers follow strict biosecurity protocols, including being very careful about who comes onto a farm or enters a pig barn.” African Swine Fever continues to spread throughout China and other parts of Asia and has decimated the country’s swine herd. NPPC said thanks to USDA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the disease has not entered the U.S.
“Farmers take biosecurity very seriously; the last thing they want is for someone to carry a disease into a barn and cause animal suffering,” the statement said.
NPPC said even though on-farm access is limited, the industry is still regulated and the USCA conducts farm surveys periodically and publishes the results.
Ag Producers Respond…
Many ag producers took to social media supporting and defending hog producers the following week. One veterinarian who practices at Tosh Farms in Tennessee laid out some facts about antibiotic usage on hog farms. Seth Krantz prescribes antibiotics to be used in over 1 million pigs. He assured followers that antibiotic usage is regulated and that the FDA has, and exercises, the authority to inspect farms. Krantz also said antibiotics are used to keep pigs “healthy and alive.”
“Animals raised in environments where they don’t receive antibiotics when needed get sick and die,” Krantz wrote. “Not only does that impact their quality of life, but it negatively impacts the well-being of the people who take care of them. I (and all other veterinarians) are continuously evaluating the effectiveness of antibiotics and where/when they are needed to improve the life of pigs while using them conscientiously and responsibly. When I purchase meat, I am concerned about products with ‘no antibiotics ever’ labels.”
Radio broadcaster and columnist Trent Loos didn’t hold back in his criticism of 60 Minutes during a video he filmed of himself in his sow barn.
“I’m talking to you, the consumer, because you should be concerned,” Loos said. “You should be greatly concerned as a consumer of food products produced in the United States based on what you heard last night. They said pork production today is controlled by people driving Maserati’s and from multinational corporations. Yet they used the case in point of salmonella in one small family butcher shop that’s owned by an individual, not a multinational corporation, purchasing pigs from a farm in Montana which is a Hutterite colony. You should be greatly concerned about the credibility of this, it’s not a news source, but rather an attempt to blatantly discredit the USDA under Donald Trump and plant a seed of doubt about the safety.”
He shared his experience with hog farming and antibiotic usage, noting he has not fed antibiotics through feed for two years and suggested that is common amongst U.S. pork producers.
“Get the facts, folks,” Loos concluded. “Don’t be scared and intimidated based upon some biased agenda.”