We've talked a lot here about the spread of MRSA ST 398, the "pig strain," subsequently found in other animals and in retail meats in various countries; and also about the likelihood that antibiotic use in large-scale farming fosters the growth of resistant organisms; and also about the way that resistant bacteria from large-scale industrial farms end up in the larger environment via groundwater and airborne dust. (Use these links to call up all the ST 398 stories and related agriculture and food stories.)
Here's an emerging story that should illuminate some of the dangers we are discussing. Note, it's not about MRSA, and it's not about resistant organisms, but it is an object lesson on how industrial-size farms can spread bacteria through the environment.
Last year, there was an outbreak of an unusual type of E. coli — a strain called O111 — in Oklahoma. There were 341 known cases, 72 hospitalizations, one death. The outbreak centered on a Locust Grove, OK restaurant called the Country Cottage, which used a private well. Here's the Oklahoma State Department of Health wrap-up of that outbreak; no source for the E. coli was ever identified.
Now comes the Oklahoma Attorney General to say that the source has been identified: Poultry DNA has been found in wells in the area, and the AG contends it is because of the use of poultry litter — manure, feathers, the stuff that falls to the bottom of a chicken house — as fertilizer on local fields.
Now, some cautions: There is no indication in the media reports (I'm looking for a report or release from the AG's office but haven't found one) that the particular E. coli strain has been found; that outbreak has burned itself out. And also, the Oklahoma AG has apparently been fighting with the poultry industry and the state of Arkansas for several years over poultry-litter pollution in the Illinois River watershed. The poultry industry, naturally, disagrees that this practice is a health threat.
But if the Oklahoma AG is correct, and there is evidence that poultry manure is putting pathogens into the water supply far from poultry farms, then that would be one more link in the chain of evidence that connects industrial-scale farming, agricultural antibiotic use, development of resistant organisms, presence of those organisms in the environment, and human health effects.