Evidently, pork isn’t just a problem when it shows up in stimulus package bills or because pigs smell. It may also land you in the hospital.

That’s the message of a Nicholas Kristof column in today’s New York Times about the dawning realization that pigs around the world often harbor antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria. The original “superbug,” these bacteria can cause painful, red welts in infected people, and infections kill over 18,000 Americans annually – more than AIDS, according to 2005 estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As Kristof notes, ScientificAmerican.com reported in January on this so-called MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) first turning up in samples of U.S. swine, according to a study published in PLoS ONE. Evidence that commercially raised pigs – usually pumped full of disease-fighting antibiotics to grow good and fat for their bacon and holiday hams – are breeding tough bacteria originally cropped up on a farm in the Netherlands in 2004. There, the pig-borne versions of the bacteria account for nearly a third of all MRSA infections.

The most recognized cases of MRSA began appearing in hospitals in the 1990s and offered a compelling, though grim example of evolution at work. Widespread antibiotic use knocks off all but the hardiest staph bacteria, which survive based on random, fortuitous mutations that render them immune to medicine’s antibacterial weapon of choice, the antibiotic.

So how do we make our food supply safer? A Perspectives column from the April issue of Scientific American has some answers. It’s the common practice of keeping pigs in cramped, filthy quarters that necessitates the constant low-dosings of antibiotics. And it’s not just pigs that need the attention of policy makers and farmers alike: Fruits such as bananas and oranges, both victims to diseases of their own, should not be grown in monoculture, leaving them vulnerable to blights.   

Image Credit: USDA