Poachers & Gamekeepers: Denmark’s Pig MRSA Scandal

Our eastern neighbour, Denmark, has much in common with the UK. The overwhelming majority of its population live in towns and cities while most of its land mass is dedicated to agriculture. More than 60% is in arable production.

And where you find grain, you’ll almost certainly find pigs.

Three quarters of homegrown cereals are used to feed the 28 million pigs produced annually. That’s way too much pigmeat for a population of 5.7 million inhabitants so 90% is exported. Overall Denmark produces enough food to feed 15 million people worldwide.

So Danish agriculture is big business. An economic powerhouse in an urbanised nation with an affluent population (I noticed demand outstrips supply for organic produce in Denmark).

And farming is making headlines. In Denmark, the pig farmers have a case to answer – that their businesses are responsible for spreading an antibiotic-resistant bacteria from pigs to people. Resistance that is believed to have developed among pig herds as a response to the routine use of antibiotics as a disease preventative.

It’s called CC398, more commonly referred to as Livestock (LA) Associated MRSA, Swine MRSA or Pig MRSA.

The main people at risk are those who work around pigs – so farm workers and their families. Six people have died from infections caused by CC398 in Denmark in the last five years; and it’s thought thousands could be carrying the bacteria in their nostrils, often unknowingly. It can be passed from pig-to-person, person-to-pig and person-to-person but poses little risk to the vast majority of the population. Basically, if you’re fit and healthy, you’re not going to get ill. And as long as pork is cooked properly, there’s no risk from food.

I wanted to do a ‘360 study’ of a controversial news story, which is why I chose to visit Denmark and focus on Pig MRSA. To use an old journalistic analogy, I met poacher, gamekeeper and game. There’s no need to include their names as this is just an example of their different roles in the story.

1) The Poacher: an investigative journalist who broke the story and successfully won the right to publish the names and addresses of infected farms

2) The Game: a conventional pig farmer

3) The Gamekeeper: a press officer at the Danish Food and Agriculture Council

Each of these people had a very different take on the story.

The ‘poacher’, an experienced and celebrated environmental journalist and author, openly admitted to being more of a campaigner than an informer. As far as he’s concerned conventional pig farming is bad for animal welfare, damaging to the environment and indefensible as a system. He believes a secretive, cover-up culture within the Danish pig industry will be its undoing and says the public has a fundamental right to know if pig farms pose a threat to their health. He has written many articles on Pig MRSA and has collaborated with The Guardian, seeking to highlight the fact that live pigs, being imported into the UK from Denmark, are not screened for CC398.

The pig farmer, or ‘game’ to continue the analogy, felt let down by the political organisations that represent Danish farmers. He agreed the problem had got out of hand, that the industry had not taken the threat seriously enough and now farmers are paying the price. He is waiting for the results of his first screening for CC398. He wanted to be more open, he wanted to tell his story – but worried he would not receive fair treatment if he did. He said his children had been stigmatised in school because they live on a pig farm and his wife, a nurse, worried about her job. Hospitals and MRSA do not mix. He passionately believes that he can defend his intensive farming practices, that his pigs receive the highest welfare standards and he does not overuse antibiotics. He was proud of his farm and was happy to show me around – access all areas.

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Pigs on a Danish farm coming up to their first screening for MRSA CC398

The press officer, or ‘gamekeeper’, said he walks a difficult line. He works for the Danish Food and Agriculture Council and while it has a duty to the public, it is ultimately answerable to farmers. They are paid to defend farmers at all costs and lobby on their behalf. It is a political organisation and when push comes to shove, farmers come first – even in the face of a public health scandal. Admitting mistakes and failure is not easy, and he agreed the story could have been handled better since the bug was first identified in 2007. But he also suggested the solutions they are working on (such as improved hygiene measures on farms) are not receiving much coverage, he struggles to sell the ‘what we’re doing about it’ angle to journalists and key contextualising points had been ignored in some mainstream coverage. He was referring to the fact that Denmark’s pig farms have the lowest antiobiotic usage in Europe and The MRSA Expert Group (made up of medical and veterinary professionals) had found that: “…for the population as a whole MRSA 398 constitutes a very minor health problem”.

I heard from a veterinary professor how, in 2015, there were 452 cases of blood poisoning caused by staphylococcal infections in Denmark. Of those seven were MRSA (resistant to antibiotics) and, of those, only one was CC398.

How to get a balanced view of such a complex picture?

It’s impossible.

Unless you listen, with an open mind and without preconception, to each of these people. Ideally, the scientists, medical and veterinary experts who inform Government policy should have a loud and authoritative voice but, as Brexit alarmingly pointed out, the public are tired of experts. The media narrative, whatever the issue, will overwhelmingly be driven by poacher, game and gamekeeper. Plaintiff and defendant.

What did I make of it all? Well, as a fresh pair of eyes, I was left with the overall impression that Livestock Associated MRSA is undeniably linked with conventional pig farming. I was told rates of infection are around 68% compared with 6% on organic farms. And the bacteria can pass to people – the MRSA Expert Group risk assessment confirms that higher rates of human infection are found in pig farming areas. In some rare cases, among the sick and infirm, it has caused infections leading to death and babies are being born with this strain of antiobiotic-resistant bacteria. It is, undoubtedly, a scandal.

However, I couldn’t help but feel the campaigning journalist had as much of an agenda as the gamekeeper. I waited for him to balance the argument, as I have been trained to do at the BBC. To point out that antibiotic usage is comparatively low on Danish farms, that a panel of experts had assessed that Pig MRSA does not pose a significant health risk to the general population and perhaps one reason Denmark has such a high number of cases is because it’s one of the few countries carrying out widespread screening (you or I could have CC398 and not know about it). During my background research, a Belgian GP told me that antibiotic resistance is an evolutionary and biological certainty and CC398 is one of many strains of MRSA on the increase. Patients not finishing their prescribed courses of antibiotics are as much to blame for growing resistance as the routine use of low-dose antibiotics in intensive agriculture.

I waited for him to say “on the other hand”, but it never came.

And there was no arguing with the trump card – people have died.

Impartiality, I’ve been told repeatedly on this global Nuffield journey, is a ruse. It doesn’t exist. If you are a thinking person, you have opinions. And some journalists take a stance. They strive to expose wrong-doing and force change; to be the fourth estate. And democracy needs that.

But do campaigning journalists give the public an impartial, balanced view? No. I do not believe they do. Does the title ‘investigative journalist’ imply that they are more impartial and balanced than the press officer or ‘gamekeeper’? Yes it does. Are we more likely to trust them? Yes.

And there’s the rub.

The word ‘journalist’ can be applied to a news reporter – someone who observes events, reports the facts and represents both sides of the argument – and a campaigning investigator who passionately airs their personal views and campaigns for change.

It is up to the reader, listener or viewer to bear this is mind. But do they?

CRISIS, CONFLICT AND CONSTRUCTIVE NEWS

Pig MRSA is a perfect example of a news agenda dominated by crisis and conflict. A perpetual game of blame tennis – it’s not my fault, it is your fault. He said, she said.

I saw no end to this stalemate until I visited the headquarters of Denmark’s national broadcaster, DR Beyn, in Copenhagen. There I met Ulrik Haagerup, executive director of news. One of the most influential journalists in the Danish media.

Ulrik is pioneering a new movement in journalism called ‘Constructive News’. It challenges the idea that bad news sells, that it has to ‘bleed to lead’. Reporting only what’s wrong in the world, he believes, pushes voters towards populist politicians. Love Trump or hate Trump, it was soundbites over solutions that put him in the White House.

Constructive News is about adopting a fresh approach to news reporting – a new culture. As journalists we’ve come to believe our job is to criticise, expose and hold power to account. While that is a crucial responsibility, Ulrik believes it’s not the whole picture. Our job is to report the best obtainable version of the truth and the truth is that the world is a mixture of good news and bad news. Problems AND solutions. Forcing stories into polarised opposites and ignoring the solutions skews the truth.

Ulrik summed it up well for me when he explained his ‘three pillars of journalism’: hard breaking news, investigative journalism and solutions-based stories. You need all three to properly inform the public. Constructive News isn’t ‘fluffy’ because you must expose the problems before you can move on to the solutions.

I asked if he could prove what impact this ‘constructive’ approach has. He told me how Denmark’s leading liberal/left wing newspaper (Dagbladet Information) was sceptical so published a solutions-based edition as an experiment. According to Ulrik it was a huge success with readers and sold more copies, sparked more discussion and increased reader engagement. I haven’t heard it from the horse’s mouth – but still, I was impressed.

Constructive news has its critics. There are those who believe a positive story is just an advert, free airtime. Real news is something someone doesn’t want you to know.

Ulrik responded with this: “That mindset has led to a news flow in print, especially tabloids, and on international television where we focus mainly on conflict, on drama, on crooks and victims. And that leads to a picture of reality which is not correct. There’s a huge gap between reality and the perception of reality. And the definition of journalism is to be a filter between the two. And if people have a wrong picture of the world, can we say we are not to blame for it?”

“If you ask people in France, ‘how many people are Muslim in your country?’ On average they will say 31%, almost one third. The right number is 8.2%. That is a false impression of the world.”

So what was his take on antibiotic resistance and the Pig MRSA story?

Ulrik’s editorial team covered it many times in their bulletins, until he got fed up of hearing the same arguments, to and fro, and nothing new. He asked: “Can’t we find just one place in the world where they’ve had the same problem and done something about it? Where’s the solution to this?”

Ulrik tasked a reporter to look into it, and he came back with an example in the Netherlands where a pig farmer had almost lost his eight-year-old daughter to an antibiotic-resistant infection. He realised he had to do something so he sprayed his barns and animals twice a week with probiotics, or so-called ‘good bacteria’. By doing so he reduced his antibiotic usage by 90% and he’s still making a profit.

“That’s a pretty damn good story,” said a very animated Ulrik. “It’s a damn good constructive story.”

According to him, the Danish farming industry took an interest and commissioned some similar trials. Apparently it never took off because probiotics are too expensive but still, Ulrik insisted, it’s a story that “aspires to a solution and that’s what constructive journalism is all about.”

I was impressed with Ulrik. He’s a tough journalist, an award-winning investigator and there are no easy rides in his newsroom.

And here’s a personal position I’m happy to share -I’m a constructive news convert.

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Ulrik Haagerup

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