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Unsafe Food in the Early 20th Century and the Food Chain Threat of Today


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The issues from both periods in history will be discussed at the Nov. 12 Spirit & Place Festival presentation “A Progressive Affair: The Threat of Unsafe Food in the Early 20th Century,” hosted and cosponsored by the Indiana Medical History Museum, 3045 W. Vermont Street, Indianapolis. The presentation will be from 7 to 9:30 p.m.

Jeff Bennett, a graduate student in the School of Liberal Arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, will discuss the two Indiana natives who were instrumental in establishing both the state and federal pure food and drugs laws: Dr. John Hurty, Indiana State Health Commissioner (1896-1922), and Dr. Harvey Wiley, director of the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry (1883-1912).

Stephen Jay, M.D., professor of medicine and public health and former chairman of the Department of Public Health at the Indiana University School of Medicine, will provide insight on our nation’s history of food adulteration and his own work to spread awareness on Capitol Hill. His topic: antibiotic restraint bacteria caused by feeding antibiotics to healthy livestock in industrial confinement to prevent the threat of disease.

“Increasingly, drug-resistant organisms are rendering antibiotics ineffective for treating human infections,” said Dr. Jay. “Medicine is rapidly losing one of its most important therapeutic tools, which is a crisis in the making.”

Dr. Jay cautions that few new antibiotics are being developed so by giving common antibiotics to healthy farm animals on industrial farms, consumers are being fed meat and products that result in antibiotic resistance.

The morbidity, mortality and costs of this problem are enormous and increasing, he said. In 1998, the Institute of Medicine assessed the U.S. cost of resistant infections at $4 billion to $5 billion a year, a conservative estimate, according to the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics and Cook County (Illinois) Hospital, which estimated the cost  in 2009 at $17 billion to $26 billion a year nationally.

“Most at risk are our children, the elderly, cancer patients and the chronically ill,” said Dr. Jay.  “Simple alternatives exist and other nations, such as Denmark, are making major changes in animal husbandry to correct the problem. Unfortunately, the U.S., which produces much of the world’s food, is not leading the charge.”