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 Suppressing Analysis on Airborne Bacteria

One particularly dramatic and well-documented case involves Dr. James Zahn, a research microbiologist at the USDA who asserts that he was prohibited on no fewer than 11 occasions from publicizing his research on the potential hazards to human health posed by airborne bacteria resulting from farm wastes.49

Zahn’s research had discovered significant levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the air near hog confinement operations in Iowa and Missouri.50 But, as Zahn recounts, he was repeatedly barred by his superiors from presenting his research at scientific conferences in 2002.51 In at least one instance, a message from a supervisor advised Zahn that, “politically sensitive and controversial issues require discretion.”52

Zahn says USDA officials told him his work was being discouraged because it dealt with human health, an issue outside his unit’s mission.53 Yet the website for the research unit at the USDA where Zahn worked states that its mission “is to solve critical problems in the swine production industry that impact production efficiency, environmental quality, and human health.”54 Zahn had accidentally stumbled on the issue of airborne antibiotic resistance while researching a related topic and, prior to the start of the Bush administration, was initially encouraged by his supervisors to pursue the work. But he says that with the change in administration, he soon came to feel that his research was being suppressed because it was perceived to be politically unpalatable.

The suppression of Zahn’s research results seems to be part of a larger pattern within the USDA of squelching findings that conflict with the Bush administration’s agenda. Notably, a directive issued in February 2002 instructed USDA staff scientists to seek prior approval before publishing any research or speaking publicly on “sensitive issues” including “agricultural practices with negative health and environmental consequences, e.g. global climate change; contamination of water by hazardous materials (nutrients, pesticides, and pathogens); animal feeding operations or crop production practices that negatively impact soil, water, or air quality.”55

Zahn, who has since left the USDA for an industry position, offers a harsh critique of the agency. He contends that USDA officials censor controversial research by forcing it through an extended approval process, prevent researchers from publicizing sensitive findings in scientific journals and at public meetings, and cooperate with industry groups to suppress research results that don’t meet those groups’ satisfaction. In particular, he says, the aforementioned directive represents “a choke hold on objective research” at the government agency.56

49 Author interview with James Zahn, January 2004. See also P. Beeman, “Ag Scientists Feel the Heat,” Des Moines Register, December 1, 2002.

50 B. Harder, “Antibiotics fed to animals drift in air,” Science News, July 5, 2003. (The article reports on Zahn’s research.)

51 Among these was his request to present a paper at an international joint meeting of the American Society for Agricultural Engineering and the 15th World Congress of CIGR (Commission Internationale du Genie Rural), Chicago, July 28-31, 2002.

52 J. Lee, “Neighbors of Vast Hog Farms Say Foul Air Endangers Their Health,” New York Times, May 11, 2003.

53 Author interview with James Zahn, January 2004.

54 “USDA Agricultural Research Service Swine Odor and Manure Management Research Unit,” USDA. Online at

55 “Lists of Sensitive Issues for ARS Manuscript Review and Approval by National Program Staff—February 2002 (revised),” USDA, February 2002. (See Appendix B.)

56 Author interview with James Zahn, January 2004.

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