retail news in context, analysis with attitude

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Hi, Kevin Coupe here and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy.

I'm not sure what kind of stuff you were reading over the summer, but in addition to the books I read for pleasure, I also spent some time reading about superbugs, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and biological threats. And it wasn't in a Michael Crichton novel. (Though it almost certainly would be if Crichton were still alive...)

Now, I'm not nearly smart enough or educated enough to be able to explain this in all its complexity. After all, I think the last science class I took was chemistry when I was a junior in high school - that would've been 1970-71, with Brother Grondin at Iona Prep in New Rochelle. (It is a pretty good bet that almost everything in chemistry has changed since then.)

But essentially what it comes down to is a concern among scientists about superbugs that are "highly resistant to last resort antibiotics," with a number of respected researchers saying that we are "very close" to the emergence of "enterobacteria" that will be impossible to treat with antibiotics currently in existence. There are, in fact, patients in the US who have been found to be infected with such bugs.

There apparently are a couple of genes out there - called mcr-1 and mcr-2 - that are resistant to this drug called colistin, which is described by Business Insider as "an antibiotic used to cure infections that have already developed resistance to other antibiotics." And if I'm reading these articles right, the suggestion is that these genes are highly mobile, able to be swapped among all sorts of different bacteria, which makes them even harder to detect and fight.

The Business Insider story also makes the point that while "the emergence of superbugs has been blamed on the overuse of antibiotics in both people and in livestock," colistin is not used in animal husbandry in the United States. But it is in other parts of the world, including China.

You know - places from which we import food.

And, there was a Los Angeles Times article that really grabbed my attention with this particular turn of phrase: "The golden age of antibiotics appears to be coming to an end, its demise hastened by a combination of medical, social and economic factors. For decades, these drugs made it easy for doctors to treat infections and injuries. Now, common ailments are regaining the power to kill."


Now, this is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has established a network of labs that it hopes will be able to respond quickly to the emergence of such bugs ... though at least from some of the reading that I've been doing, it sounds like they may be bringing knives to a gunfight.

Like I said, I'm not really educated enough to understand all this stuff. But the one thing that these articles and others like them seem to agree on - a common strain, if you will - is the fact that our society is going to have to be a lot more vigilant and transparent about the foods we eat and the medicines we use, and a lot more willing to invest in the kinds of scientific research necessary to identify and fight these problems. These aren't the kinds of issues that politicians can sit around debating, trying to find electoral advantages. If we don't do what is necessary in terms of medical research, people are going to die.

Food retailers and manufacturers are going to have to understand that they need to be at the forefront of this new transparency and vigilance ... that if they cut corners or ignore opportunities, they are going to be putting their companies at risk ... and worse, will be putting their customers' lives at risk.

It means that that everybody in the food supply chain has to be open, up front, specific and transparent about where food is from, what is in food, how it has been treated and should be treated by customers. This isn't scare-mongering ... it is, in fact, an enormous opportunity to be on the front lines of consumer education.

I'm sure there will be someone out there who will suggest that consumers don't need to know this or that, or that some of the things being suggested by scientists will cost too much money or offer too little return on investment. And all I can think of is that those little superbugs don't really give a damn about profit margins or communications strategies.

Words like "superbugs, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and biological threats" are scary as hell. They aren't the stuff of science fiction these days. Rather, they reflect our modern reality ... and companies have to respond decisively and without hesitation.

That's what is on my mind this Thursday morning, as I desperately resist the desire to crawl under the covers. As always, I want to know what is on your mind.

KC's View: