“Big Chicken” book raises big problems

Factory farming, whether raising chicken or cattle or even fish, turns out to have unintended consequences.
Author Maryn McKenna will talk about these consequences and her book, “Big Chicken,” at 7:30 p.m., Jan. 23 at the ImpactHub in Seattle. She’s likely to touch on the fish farm controversies of the Northwest, because cramming salmon into pens is related to cramming chickens into pens. The cramming itself leads to problems.
She plumbs the history of chicken farming in her book, but in service to a much bigger story. She traces the growing scientific understanding that antibiotic use in farming led to antibiotic resistance in the dangerous bacteria that now haunt hospitals and nursing homes, threatening human lives. Feeding the drugs to chickens helped carry those “resistant” bacteria, the ones who survived the antibiotics, to become widespread in our communities.
She asks readers to widen their lens even more, and see this development as part of what is called “One Health.” One Health integrates veterinary and medical research to try to recognize the whole community is connected to the health of all parts. Seattle has a place dedicated to this paradigm, the Center for One Health Research at the University of Washington.
Chicken farmers began giving antibiotics to their fowl in the late 1940s, but not because of sick chickens, rather because of the accidental discovery that antibiotics helped fatten the birds. What McKenna vividly illustrates is how consumer desires and marketing led to cramming birds into smaller and smaller living spaces. Smaller living spaces required different practices for raising the birds in a shorter time to a larger size. This may sound familiar to those who are worried about fish getting crammed into pens.
“Whenever you take a creature that is evolved to range free and try to raise them in a smaller and smaller space, it requires artificial means to make that happen,” McKenna said in a phone interview.
Today, the World Health Organization has declared this sort of “resistance” as one of the biggest threats to global health. The overuse of antibiotics speeds up the process of resistance.. If this threat continues, it could create a nightmarish return to people dying of what were once ordinary infections. One big example of this is known as MRSA, for methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
Seattle played a role in the early understanding of how this threat might hurt people.
It was a Seattle scientist, Reimert Ravenholt, who discovered an outbreak of a skin infection among workers at a chicken slaughterhouse in the 1950s. Ravenholt later published in 1961 the first description of antibiotic resistance as a result of factory use. Here is part of how the book explains his discovery:
“Ravenholt could not prove in a lab that the antibiotic doses, the chicken’s lesions, the antibiotic soaks, and the workers’ health problems were linked. But he was confident that what happened was this: Drugs in the feed had affected bacteria in the birds, habituating them to antibiotics, and the low dose of the same antibiotics in the chilling bath had eliminated all the bacteria except for those that had become resistant. Those had survived to infect the workers who were plunging their arms and hands in the contaminated water.”
In the Northwest, we have fish crowded into pens, and there are some parallels where growing protein of any kind – fish, meat or chicken – may threaten human health in some way. Chickens are not routinely given antibiotics for growth anymore in the U.S. But beef and pork still get these doses. It is estimated that 70 percent of all the antibiotics on earth may be given to animals, not people.
Salmon farms in the U.S., like the controversial ones that collapsed and released Atlantic salmon into the Puget Sound ecosystem in August, don’t routinely use antibiotics as growth promoters. But a study in 2014 showed that farmed-salmon sold in US markets did have traces of antibiotics. Salmon raised in net pens are also crowded, just like land-based protein sources
European countries have regulated antibiotic use much more than the United States. In the U.S., it was consumer demand that prompted Perdue Farms, Inc, the fourth largest producer, to announce in 2014 that they would not use growth-promoting antibiotics. McKenna believes that public awareness about protein production, including fish, is the path forward to reducing the threat of antibiotic resistance and other unintended consequences.
She ends her book with a visit to a family farm, where every aspect of raising chickens is in stark contrast to a factory. She calls those intentional measures the hallmarks that should change the way the world raises protein.

Scientists shovel dirt in book for parents

Should you wash the pacifier, if it falls on the ground, or should you lick it off and give it back to your child?

Two scientists tackle this – and hundreds of other questions about dirty and clean in the new book, “Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System.” Hint – They fall on the side of licking and returning the pacifier, with qualifications.

Both Jack Gilbert and Rob Knight are parents. They’ve been sleepless in the nursery, and worried about vaginal versus c-section births. They’ve framed the science as a series of parent questions from pregnancy and childbirth itself all the way up the playground years. Science nitpickers will find plenty of details about what is called the microbiome – the ecology of all the microscopic creatures who share our skin and our guts. (And our hair, and our armpits, and …)

Gilbert is a PhD and professor of surgery and director of the Microbiome Center at the University of Chicago. Knight is a PhD and professor of pediatrics and computer science at the University of California, San Diego. Gilbert and Knight are not medical doctors, and don’t give medical advice. Their co-writer, Sandra Blakeslee, wrote for the New York Times for many years.

These three bring academic heft to their answers, often quoting specific research projects that have established certain science principles. There are more than 180 references in the book’s appendix.

But scattered in the pages, there is room for humor.

“Should I wash dishes in the dishwasher or by hand? What’s best for microbial health?”

“Is it okay for my child to touch poop?”

Before we look at the answers to these questions, let’s just explain that the last few years have seen an explosion of discoveries about the benefit of healthy microbes in the human gut. People who are infected with one microbe, C. difficile, are sometimes cured by a transplant of feces from a healthy person.  Conditions such as depression and autism have been studied by comparing the microbes living in the intestines of patients with and without those issues. But the explosion of research has led to a corresponding explosion of hype.

Parents may feel especially confused. Perhaps you have heard that exposing children to a certain amount of dirt may help protect them from developing allergies. There is truth to that, and this book goes into pages of details.

On the dish question, the scientists explain that the extra-hot drying cycle of some dishwashers is probably too much cleanliness. They recommend hand washing dishes. As they write, “You want your kid to be exposed to more, not fewer, bacteria in daily life.” On the poop question – they are generally saying it is OK but there are important limits.

Should I take my child to a farm? Should we get a dog?

With careful but clever explanations, the scientists say “yes” to both the farm visits and the dog. But they may surprise you with some other answers. They don’t routinely advise eating yogurt, for example, even though it has the reputation of carrying “good” microbes, often called probiotics. Probiotics is the opposite of antibiotics, which kill bacteria. Probiotics often contain what are called “good” bacteria.

But the book explains that there is no evidence that probiotics always make people’s guts healthier. The whole field of what is known as probiotics is filled with claims that promise one outcome, but frequently don’t deliver it.

Should I give my child probiotics if he has diarrhea?

In this example, the scientists say “Yes.”   Studies do show the value of giving an infant with diarrhea a probiotic. The precise answer to the question gives an education in how the relatively young science of microbial health defines “good” bacteria, and how there is evidence for infants that shows certain probiotics help in that situation.  But they also explain exceptions and nuance.

Reading the whole book may leave you with an awestruck appreciation for what is not known. The true dimension or “population” of microbes that constitutes the healthiest possible gut is not established yet for most people. There are layers and layers of complexity surrounding what we eat, because some of what we eat is “food” for the bacteria themselves and other things we eat are broken down into elements that we actually absorb to power our own cells.

In the 14 chapters and hundreds of questions, the authors slowly educate us to a awesome admiration for the colonies that share our body.  Each person is a planet. Each part of the body carries its own colony of microbes, which thrives in a dynamic communal way, competing with each other for certain resources, but also driving off invaders in some cases that might make the person-planet sick.

For a deeper dive into what is called the “hygiene hypothesis” and how exposure to more diversity in childhood may keep children from allergies and asthma, see this New England Journal of Medicine article.

The more we know about the complicated interplay of these creatures, the more questions we may have. It isn’t an easy time to wash the dishes.


Review of book by pediatrician Perri Klass of The New York Times.

Centrifuge – smashing science into theater


What happens when an actor has to keep putting on a skull-cap, in order to look bald, over and over? Audiences howled, as his errant hairs poked out, and he began his lines imitating Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame. The fake-Jeff was just one character in a set of five science plays. Each play only 10 minutes long and all of them part of a festival known as Centrifuge.

In other plays, reluctant astronauts hunted down life on Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. Newlyweds obeyed the beeped warnings of Fitbits on their wrists predicting “argument” approaching, the way the silly robot of “Lost in space” kept saying “Aliens approaching.” A family hid in a bunker from the frightening reality of ordinary crowds of other people.

Besides a hilarious ribbing of both Bezos and space-exploration rival Elon Musk, a different dystopian play focused on overuse of the mood-enhancer ecstasy or  MDMA. Writer Wayt Gibbs holds a model of that molecule above.

Centrifuge is a week-long improvisation between volunteers of two tribes – theater and science. David Mills and his wife, Catherine Kettrick, lead this project. Full disclosure – I was one of the science writers in May 2017.

You can’t predict what will happen as the week unfolds. With close to 30 people involved, who have full-time other jobs, plenty of obstacles show up. Pets get sick, relatives call, jobs demand. Randomness drives the schedule, just as in a lab where randomness divides mice into controls or experimental subjects.

Monday: Five science writers and five playwrights are randomly assigned to each other, leave the room in minutes and spend time talking in dyads about some research the science writer has brought in.

Wednesday: Five playwrights turn in roughly six-page scripts of new plays inspired by that talk. Actors, who wait for their names to be pulled from hats, are assigned to the five plays. They begin reading the scripts out loud with a randomly assigned director. As I watched, four actors began turning names into people – adding back stories and motivation to small gestures.

Just to shorten this a bit, by Friday the five plays, including 5-minute introductions about science by each writer, debut to the public. A lot of logistics – sets, costumes, lighting, sound and pacing get expertly handled by the theater tribe.

My playwright was Jim Jewell, whose full-time day job is teaching college students composition. The play he created in 48 hours was amazingly complex with four characters from a family. It was less about the gut microbiome research I described to him Monday, and more deeply about how people resist ideas. How might people react to knowing their bodies are more microbial colonizers than “self?” See my earlier post for more about microbiome.

Unlike science, no measurements are taken after this week of mixing. We didn’t examine the audience to rate their hilarity. We didn’t measure the science writers or playwrights to give them a 2 or an 8 in “inspiration.”  But what might have changed in us?

I’m hoping Wayt, as well as Alan Boyle, Greg Scheiderer, and Elle O’Brien will tell me some of their musings on that question for a future post.