By Maggie Fox, Senior Writer, NBC News
A crackdown on slaughterhouses has helped cut rates of certain types of food poisoning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Thursday. But other causes of stomach upset are on the rise – a trend that indicates better regulation of meat from hoof to plate is needed, as well as stricter regulation of produce and processed food, the CDC says.
One type of stomach bug called Campylobacter, carried in chicken and unpasteurized milk and cheese, is becoming more common, the CDC’s regular survey of foodborne illness finds.
Dr. Robert Tauxe, an expert in foodborne illness at CDC, says meat-related foodborne illnesses have plummeted since the agency started intensively studying trends in 1996. “When we look at what has changed between the 2006-2008 period and now, unfortunately nothing has gone down and a couple of infections have gone up,” Tauxe added in a telephone interview.
“Campylobacter has increased 14 percent since 2006-2008 and then there are the much less common Vibrio infections — and those have increased 43 percent.” There were 193 reported cases of Vibrio infection in 2012, with six deaths.
Vibrio bacteria are in the same family as cholera, but in this case not nearly as dangerous. They thrive in warm sea water and mostly sicken people who eat raw oysters or who go into affected waters with an open cut, Tauxe says. “The warmer it is, the more Vibrios there are,” he said. “It grows a lot when the water is warm. It is a problem in the summer much more than in the winter.”
But by far the most common cause of food poisoning is Salmonella, the CDC found using its Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network or FOODNet, which collects data in 10 states. “Salmonella is in the number one spot, causing 40 percent of the infections that the FOODNet system collected,” Tauxe said. “Campylobacter was number two, pretty close behind at 35 percent.”
The FOODNet system documented 7,800 Salmonella infections in 2012, with 33 deaths. Nearly 7,000 people were diagnosed with Campylobacter infections, and six died. That’s just a small percentage of the actual cases – CDC estimates that about 48 million Americans, or one in six, get sick from eating contaminated food each year and 3,000 die.
“We figure that for every infection that is diagnosed, there are 25 or 30 more illnesses out there,” Tauxe said. “Maybe some of those people don’t see a doctor or maybe they do see a doctor but there isn’t a culture.”
New USDA regulations that require more intense testing of food animals probably caused Campylobacter infections to fall in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the CDC says. But not enough, Tauxe said.
“What I take away from this is we need to think more and more about what happens to the animals before they come to slaughter, what happens back on the farm and what happens with other foods such as produce and processed foods,” he said.
New Food and Drug Administration regulations regarding produce may help prevent other sources of illness, he added. They require facilities that manufacture, process, pack or hold human food to develop formal plans for preventing their products from causing foodborne illness.
The 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act was designed to help the FDA better able to prevent foodborne outbreaks, rather than simply reacting after one happens. FDA commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg asked Congress for $295.8 million this year to help implement the new regulations.
“The fresh produce is important. We have had a lot of Salmonella problems related to fresh produce,” Tauxe said. “Further attention to poultry parts and ground poultry like ground turkey may help, and the processed food industry – the people who make peanut butter and many other processed foods – I think there is room for improvement there.”
Many of the bugs that sicken people live naturally in the digestive systems of animals, including people. Outbreaks of disease have been linked to unclean slaughtering processes and unhygienic meat handling.
And it was thought that fresh produce, such as lettuce and cantelopes, were contaminated by manure. But there may be more to it than that, Tauxe says.
“There is reason to think that some Salmonella may be more at home than we think in plants,” he said. “They are not just passively on the plant. They may be inside the plant, which is a great place to be because you don’t get washed off and the next animal or person to eat the plant gets it.”
In January CDC released a report showing that produce accounted for 46 percent of foodborne illnesses between 1998 and 2008, while contaminated meat accounted for fewer illnesses but more deaths — 29 percent of deaths in total.
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On one covert video, farm workers illegally burn the ankles of Tennessee walking horses with chemicals. Another captures workers in Wyoming punching and kicking pigs and flinging piglets into the air. And at one of the country’s largest egg suppliers, a video shows hens caged alongside rotting bird corpses, while workers burn and snap off the beaks of young chicks.
Each video — all shot in the last two years by undercover animal rights activists — drew a swift response: Federal prosecutors in Tennessee charged the horse trainer and other workers, who have pleaded guilty, with violating the Horse Protection Act. Local authorities in Wyoming charged nine farm employees with cruelty to animals. And the egg supplier, which operates in Iowa and other states, lost one of its biggest customers, McDonald’s, which said the video played a part in its decision.
But a dozen or so state legislatures have had a different reaction: They proposed or enacted bills that would make it illegal to covertly videotape livestock farms, or apply for a job at one without disclosing ties to animal rights groups. They have also drafted measures to require such videos to be given to the authorities almost immediately, which activists say would thwart any meaningful undercover investigation of large factory farms.
Critics call them “Ag-Gag” bills.
Some of the legislation appears inspired by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a business advocacy group with hundreds of state representatives from farm states as members. The group creates model bills, drafted by lobbyists and lawmakers, that in the past have included such things as “stand your ground” gun laws and tighter voter identification rules.
One of the group’s model bills, “The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act,” prohibits filming or taking pictures on livestock farms to “defame the facility or its owner.” Violators would be placed on a “terrorist registry.”
Officials from the group did not respond to a request for comment.
Animal rights activists say they have not seen legislation that would require them to register as terrorists, but they say other measures — including laws passed last year in Iowa, Utah and Missouri — make it nearly impossible to produce similar undercover exposés. Some groups say that they have curtailed activism in those states.
“It definitely has had a chilling effect on our ability to conduct undercover investigations,” said Vandhana Bala, general counsel for Mercy for Animals, which has shot many videos, including the egg-farm investigation in 2011. (McDonald’s said that video showed “disturbing and completely unacceptable” behavior, but that none of the online clips were from the Iowa farm that supplied its eggs. Ms. Bala, though, said that some video showing bird carcasses in cages did come from that facility.)
The American Farm Bureau Federation, which lobbies for the agricultural and meat industries, criticized the mistreatment seen on some videos. But the group cautions that some methods represent best practices endorsed by animal-care experts.
The videos may seem troubling to someone unfamiliar with farming, said Kelli Ludlum, the group’s director of Congressional relations, but they can be like seeing open-heart surgery for the first time.
“They could be performing a perfect procedure, but you would consider it abhorrent that they were cutting a person open,” she said.
In coming weeks, Indiana and Tennessee are expected to vote on similar measures, while states from California to Pennsylvania continue to debate them.
Opponents have scored some recent victories, as a handful of bills have died, including those in New Mexico and New Hampshire. In Wyoming, the legislation stalled after loud opposition from animal rights advocates, including Bob Barker, former host of “The Price is Right.”
In Indiana, an expansive bill became one of the most controversial of the state legislative session, drawing heated opposition from labor groups and the state press association, which said the measure violated the First Amendment.
After numerous constitutional objections, the bill was redrafted and will be unveiled Monday, said Greg Steuerwald, a Republican state representative and chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
The new bill would require job applicants to disclose material information or face criminal penalties, a provision that opponents say would prevent undercover operatives from obtaining employment. And employees who do something beyond the scope of their jobs could be charged with criminal trespass.
An employee who took a video on a livestock farm with his phone and gave it to someone else would “probably” run afoul of the proposed law, Mr. Steuerwald said. The bill will apply not just to farms, but to all employers, he added.
Nancy J. Guyott, the president of the Indiana chapter of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said she feared that the legislation would punish whistle-blowers.
Nationally, animal rights advocates fear that they will lose a valuable tool that fills the void of what they say is weak or nonexistent regulation.
Livestock companies say that their businesses have suffered financially from unfair videos that are less about protecting animals than persuading consumers to stop eating meat.
Don Lehe, a Republican state representative from a rural district in Indiana, said online videos can cast farmers in a false light and give them little opportunity to correct the record.
“That property owner is essentially guilty before they had the chance to address the issue,” Mr. Lehe said. As for whistle-blowers, advocates for the meat industry say that they are protected from prosecution by provisions in some bills that give them 24 to 48 hours to turn over videos to legal authorities.
“If an abuse has occurred and they have evidence of it, why are they holding on to it?” said Dale Moore, executive director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation.
But animal rights groups say investigations take months to complete.
Undercover workers cannot document a pattern of abuse, gather enough evidence to force a government investigation and determine whether managers condone the abuse within one to two days, said Matt Dominguez, who works on farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States.
“Instead of working to prevent future abuses, the factory farms want to silence them,” he said. “What they really want is for the whistle to be blown on the whistle-blower.”
The Humane Society was responsible for a number of undercover investigations, including the videos of the Wyoming pig farm and the Tennessee walking horses.
Video shot in 2011 showed workers dripping caustic chemicals onto the horses’ ankles and clasping metal chains onto the injured tissue. This illegal and excruciating technique, known as “soring,” forces the horse to thrust its front legs forward after every painful step to exaggerate the distinctive high-stepping gait favored by breeders. The video also showed a worker hitting a horse in the head with a large piece of wood.
The Humane Society first voluntarily turned over the video to law enforcement. By the time the video was publicly disclosed, federal prosecutors had filed charges. A week later, they announced guilty pleas from the horse trainer and other workers.
Prosecutors later credited the Humane Society with prompting the federal investigation and establishing “evidence instrumental to the case.”
That aid to prosecutors shows the importance of lengthy undercover investigations that would be prevented by laws requiring video to be turned over within one or two days, Mr. Dominguez said.
“At the first sign of animal cruelty, we’d have to pull our investigator out, and we wouldn’t be able to build a case that leads to charges.”
By: Joseph Castro, LiveScience Contributor
Published: 01/16/2013 06:03 PM EST on LiveScience
Scientists have long held that crabs are unable to feel pain because they lack the biology to do so, but behavioral evidence has recently shown otherwise. Now, new research further supports the hypothesis that crabs feel pain by showing that crabs given a mild shock will take steps to avoid getting shocked in the future.
From humans to fruit flies, numerous species come equipped with nociception, a type of reflex that helps avoid immediate tissue damage. On the other hand, pain, which results in a swift change of behavior to avoid future damage, isn’t so widespread. (Research has also shown naked mole rats may be immune to pain.)
In the new study, researchers allowed shore crabs (Carcinus maenas) to choose between one of two dark shelters in a brightly lit tank. One shelter came with a mild shock. After just two trials, crabs that initially chose the shocking shelter began opting for the zapless shelter, suggesting they learned to discriminate between the two options and headed for the less painful one.
“It’s almost impossible to prove an animal feels pain, but there are criteria you can look at,” said lead researcher Robert Elwood, an animal behaviorist at Queen’s University, Belfast, in the U.K. “Here we have another criteria satisfied — if the data are consistent, a body of evidence [showing crabs feel pain] can build up.”
Elwood initially set out to see if crabs and other crustacean decapods feel pain after a chef posed him the question around eight years ago. If the invertebrates (animals without backbones) feel pain, he reasoned, their reactions to unpleasant stimuli would be more than the simple reflex of nociception — the experience would change their long-term behavior.
Elwood’s first experiment showed that prawns whose antennae were doused with caustic soda vigorously groomed their antennae, as if trying to ameliorate pain. Importantly, this behavior didn’t occur if Elwood treated the antennae with an anesthetic first.
Another experiment showed that hermit crabs would leave their shells if given a mild shock. “A naked crab is basically a dead crab — they were trading off avoiding the shock with getting out of the shell,” Elwood told LiveScience, adding that many of the crabs moved into new shells if any were available. [The 10 Weirdest Animal Discoveries]
For his new study, Elwood tested 90 shore crabs, which naturally seek dark spaces, to see if they exhibited “avoidance learning” and would discriminate between a dangerous and a safe area. Half of the crabs were shocked upon entering the first chamber of their choice, while the other half were not. For each crab, the jolting chamber stayed the same throughout the 10 trials.
In the second trial, most of the crabs returned to their original shelter; whether they were shocked in the first trial had little effect on their second choice. However, crabs were more likely to change shelter in the third trial if they were shocked in the second trial. And as the trials wore on, crabs that chose incorrectly became more likely to exit the unpleasant chamber, brave the bright arena and hide in the alternate shelter. By the final test, the majority of the crabs chose the nonshock shelter at first go.
Time for change?
The research “provides evidence that supports the issue that crabs — and other crustacean decapods as well — feel pain,” Francesca Gherardi, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Florence in Italy who wasn’t involved in the study, told LiveScience in an email. “It is avoidance learning that makes the difference.”
Animals in pain should quickly learn to avoid the unpleasant stimulus and show long-term changes in behavior, Gherardi noted. More research is needed on decapods’ avoidance learning and “discrimination abilities between painful and nonpainful situations,” he said.
Elwood said he thinks future research should go in a different direction. Stress often comes with pain, he said, so other experiments could look at changes in crustacean hormones or heart rates due to shock.
Whatever the case, Elwood feels it may be time to reconsider the treatment of decapods in the food industry. “If the evidence for pain in decapods continues to stack up with mammals and birds that already get some protection, then perhaps there should be some nod in that direction for these animals,” he said.
The study was published today (Jan. 16) in the Journal of Experimental Biology.