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Hey, USDA, Who’s Your Daddy?

By: Robert Lawrence

For whom does the USDA work? A recent development involving a vanished technical review makes me wonder if the agency is working to assure a safe and nutritious food supply for the U.S. citizenry, or to protect the profits of the agro-industrial complex.

Tom Philpott did a great job covering the turn of events in a Mother Jones article published on Friday. In a nutshell, the USDA asked Vaishali Dharmarha, a Food Safety Information Specialist at U.S. Department of Agriculture/University of Maryland, to summarize recent academic findings on the link between antibiotic resistant bacterial infections (such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA) and industrial farm animal production.  The agency blessed the report, which summarized research from 63 academic papers, as peer-reviewed, scientific, and scholarly. And then they quashed it.

Dharmarha’s report was damning in a way that won’t surprise anyone acquainted with the ills of industrial livestock production. The list includes the phenomenon of livestock  becoming reservoirs of resistant bacteria that can be transmitted to humans, the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella, Campylobactyer, Enterococci, and more. It’s not surprising that the meat industry was unhappy. In particular, the National Pork Producers Council found the report “very disappointing.”

But despite USDA’s original support, Dharmarha has been silenced and forbidden to talk to the media, and the review has vanished from the USDA website, and, apparently, most of the Internet. In fact, Philpott provided one link to the report, which was provided to him by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). It is a snapshot of the page that the UCS retrieved from Google’s cache of the original USDA page, which is now blank. (Good work, UCS!)

According to its mission statement, the USDA “ … provide[s] leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management. “

If their mission depends on sound policy and science, then why have they silenced a researcher that they hired, and why have they disappeared a scientific report that they commissioned?

This is indeed a disturbing example of the animal agro-industry’s influence at the USDA. Philpott’s article is worth reading (despite the inaccurate implication that Joshua Sharfstein was forced out of the FDA). Above all, though, thank you to all who have helped to keep the original report available.

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