Bees, pigs and swine flu in the news

by Terry B on April 29, 2009

A possible cure for the colony collapse disorder currently decimating honey bee populations and threatening horticulture and sustainable agriculture farms. Is “the other white meat” really red meat—and does it matter? And stocking your pantry for a potential swine flu pandemic.

A breakthrough in saving bees, saving agriculture

Over the last few years, honey bee colonies have been dying off in record numbers. Not just bees within the colonies—entire colonies. This is bad. As an article published this month at EurekAlert! puts it, “The loss of honey bees could have an enormous horticultural and economic impact worldwide. Honey bees are important pollinators of crops, fruit and wild flowers and are indispensable for a sustainable and profitable agriculture as well as for the maintenance of the non-agricultural ecosystem.”

But finally, there seems to be some hope. In a study published in the new journal from the Society for Applied Microbiology, Environmental Microbiology Reports, scientists from Spain have isolated a parasite from two professional apiaries suffering from honey bee colony depopulation syndrome [known as colony collapse disorder in the United States]. They found no evidence of any other cause of the disease, other than infection with the parasite.

The researchers then treated the infected surviving under-populated colonies with the antibiotic drug flumagillin and completely cured the colonies.

While it would not be possible, or at least not feasible, to treat every bee colony in the world with flumagillin—prohibitive cost, possible resistance issues, etcetera—it is good to know that a treatable fungus is most likely the cause. Theories abounded prior to this discovery, some reasonable sounding, some pretty far fetched—some reports even attempted to link cell phone usage with the loss of honey bees. Even better, armed with concrete evidence, it’s likely that good practices can reduce the incidence, with the fumagillin being used as a back up if improved hygiene fails.

Red meat? White meat? Does it matter?

When I say “the other white meat” and you think pork, that shows that advertising is doing its job. And in fact, Webster’s Dictionary has classified pork—and veal—as white meat since 1934. But according to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times by health columnist Elena Conis, “Putting pork in its nutritional place,” if meat comes from a mammal, it’s red meat, and if it comes from fowl, it’s white meat.

But as Conis goes on to say, “that distinction isn’t very helpful for consumers… Whether a meat is red or white isn’t the best indication of the type and amount of fat it contains.” When we think of chicken as being healthier and lower in fat than beef or pork, we’re really thinking of skinless chicken breasts.

A skin-on serving of chicken from the leg, however, has more cholesterol and about the same amount of saturated fat as 95% lean ground beef. A serving of pork loin, grown to today’s leaner industry standards, contains less saturated fat than either—but more cholesterol than the beef. Conis quotes Judy Stern, professor of nutrition and internal medicine at UC Davis, as saying, “If this sounds really confusing, that’s because it is. Heck, I’m confused.”

So the bottom line, at least for pork-loving me, is to not take such a red and white view of the meat world, but to think more in terms of fat content, preparation and balance.

Preparing for a pandemic: Stocking your pantry in case of a major swine flu outbreak

First, this very important bit of information from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], as to whether you can get swine influenza from eating or preparing pork: “No. Swine influenza viruses are not spread by food. You cannot get swine influenza from eating pork or pork products. Eating properly handled and cooked pork products is safe.” This being a food blog written by someone who loves pork, I just wanted to clear that up. Now, on to the story.

As I write this, news of new cases of swine flu in Mexico, the United States, Canada and even Europe and New Zealand is being reported. The situation is evolving quickly; the virus is suspected in 159 deaths and 2,498 illnesses across Mexico where the outbreak began, according to Mexico’s Health Secretary Jose Cordova.

While swine flu is treatable with antiviral drugs—the CDC has identified two drugs effective against this strain—the possibility of a swine flu pandemic throughout North America does exist. The CDC’s website suggests these “everyday actions people can take to stay healthy.”

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze.
  • Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread that way.
  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Influenza is thought to spread mainly person-to-person through coughing or sneezing of infected people.
  • If you get sick, CDC recommends that you stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them.

Stocking your pantry for a pandemic. First, why do this? During a “period of social isolation”—that’s the friendly euphemism being bandied about right now—getting food on a regular basis could become difficult. The Get Pandemic Ready website, produced by the Board of County Commissioners of Nez Perce County, Idaho, offers this cheery assessment: “Grocery stores typically stock three days’ worth of food at most. It is on the shelves, not in a warehouse. This just-in-time delivery system works for normal times. When disaster strikes or is imminent [such as a hurricane], the shelves are quickly emptied.”

Lest you think I’m going all survivalist on you, they also offer some practical, down-to-earth advice: “In choosing food to buy, store what you already eat. By doing this, you avoid adding dietary stress to an already stressful situation.” And go for long shelf life. For us, this means stocking up on canned beans, tomatoes, soups, fruits and tuna; pasta; baking supplies; hot and cold cereals. It also means stocking the freezer with meat and vegetables. And maybe laying in some cheese—but that would probably be gone by day two of any emergency. Same goes for any emergency wine.

We’re not going for three months, as the site recommends—we don’t have the space, budget or patience. But we are stocking our pantry a bit fuller than usual. We’re also laying in basic medical supplies and paper products. Oh, and pet supplies—don’t want the cats eying my tuna noodle casserole.  In some ways, I view this process kind of like taking an umbrella so it won’t rain. On the other hand, if this all amounts to nothing [as a former boss used to say, "Your lips to god's ears"], we’ll be spared some future trips to the grocery store.

And finally, you know how Newsweek and other magazines often end bylined articles with credits such as “Also contributing to this story…”? Marion deserves that in letters five miles high for this post. She alerted me to stories that put all three of these topics on my radar; she also found some of the resources I linked to here. Thanks, sweetie!

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Carol April 30, 2009 at 2:21 am

This is the most empowering info I’ve come upon in a spell. Incredibly good news about honey bees! Great too, you carving up the distinctions between white and red meats via fat content. Pork has gotten much, much leaner in the past decade, too.

And lastly the pandemic pantry. Thank you Marion for your research. After September 11 and the anthrax scare in metro Washington DC, the feds, state and Fairfax County issued detailed ways to prepare for…anything. I am shocked at how quickly & easily I’ve slipped out of that mode. Thank you your timely update & for offering simple ways of feeling in control–canned beans, tuna, cheese, and all in my pantry already!

dani April 30, 2009 at 3:03 am

As always, an interesting and helpful post. I didn’t know that pork has more cholesterol than beef. And it’s good to hear that the cause of the honey bee problem has finally been identified.

Another tip that I heard regarding swine flu prevention – use a paper towel or tissue to turn off the water faucets and open the door when you are leaving a public restroom. I had thought about getting two weeks of groceries instead of one in case I was too sick to go out, but I had no idea that grocery stores have such a short supply on hand. That’s information that I’ll be passing on.

Thank you, Terry and Marion, for a such a helpful post!

Terry B April 30, 2009 at 4:13 am

Carol—And a feeling of being in control can be a powerful tool, can’t it? A bit of perspective that Marion came across somewhere today, by the way. Yes, the swine flu outbreak is bad. But every year, a quarter of a million people die from one sort of flu or another worldwide, 26,000 in the United States alone. We’ve got a long way to go to hit numbers like that.

In some ways, the coverage of this outbreak has been helpful in getting people to prepare and take precautions. On the other hand, I think some of the media are embracing it a little too much as a good news day, a welcome break from the ongoing financial news everyone is tiring of, and perhaps making us obsess about it a little too much.

Thanks, dani! Regarding short supplies in stores, Marion and I were at Target tonight. They were completely out of hand sanitizers.

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