In past columns we've established some points about the debate regarding the use of antibiotics in food animals, the anti-agriculture agenda of the Humane Society of the United States and the inaccuracies of the Union of Concerned Scientists' junk-science report. Now more than ever we need you to respond to misleading and agenda-driven journalists and activists.
Here is a list of some additional points to consider:
Fluoroquinolones and cephalosporins are antibiotics used in both veterinary and human medicine for treatment of infectious disease. In animals, they've never been labeled for use in the feed or water for cattle and swine; the earlier approval for use in the water for poultry has been withdrawn. These products also have never been approved for use in animals for improvement in efficiency or rate of gain.
To address the biases and misinformation in the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production report (read it at http://www.ncifap.org), check out the response from the American Veterinary Medical Association at http://www.avma.org/advocacy/PEWresponse/.
A recent study in the Netherlands found that a new type of methicillin-resistant Staph aureus (MRSA), ST398, is epidemiologically associated with pig and cattle farmers and is said to be >20% of carriage (infection without symptoms) in humans. In the U.S., it's been demonstrated that while some swine workers and veterinarians carry the same strain of MRSA as in swine herds, the strains responsible for community outbreaks are different than those found in food-animal herds. MRSA carriage has been documented in organic production as well.
Press articles and editorials commonly cite the breadth of resistance problems in human medicine, including tuberculosis, malaria, Salmonella, E. coli, Pseudomonas, Enterococcus (especially faecium) and Staphylococcus species, to name a few. If there are data or reports out there linking animal agriculture to resistance in tuberculosis, malaria and hospital-acquired resistant Staph or Enterococci infections, then I have missed them.
Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli should be legitimately investigated and monitored in relation to food-animal use. But even in these cases, laying it all at the feet of animal agriculture is unfounded.
The Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine (FDA/CVM) conducted a risk assessment on the food-animal use of virginiamycin, which is closely related to a drug used in humans for resistant infections. No evidence of an adverse effect could be documented. Risk assessments have also been generated for penicillin, tulathromycin and macrolides (tilmicosin, tylosin), and they have demonstrated negligible risk to human health from these uses. Zero risk, of course, is unobtainable.
The withdrawal of the original FDA/CVM rule on banning extra-label use of cephalosporins is frequently cited as an example of big agriculture pressuring the government to back off from doing the right thing. Our system is designed to work by putting out a proposed rule and collecting comments, after which the rule is then implemented, discarded, or withdrawn for further consideration. Regarding the fate of extra-label use of cephalosporins, the FDA/CVM has stated that many substantive comments were received, and the agency is currently revising the rule for implementation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a report of food-borne illness on its website, where you can compare 2008 FoodNet data to 1996-1998 data.
Salmonella is the number-one food-borne pathogen in the U.S., with an incidence that was unchanged over that study period. However, Campylobacter is down 32%, Shigella down 40%, E. coli O157:H7 down 25%, Yersinia down 48%, and Listeria down 36%. Vibrio actually rose 47%, and the cryptosporidium rate was unchanged.
Please remember, don't let shining the light on some common misconceptions and falsehoods discredit the entire argument that antibiotic use in animal agriculture should be closely evaluated and watched. But, as an industry, we need to respond to activist, drive-by journalists and those who mindlessly repeat their drivel.
Mike Apley, DVM, PhD, is a professor in clinical sciences at Kansas State University in Manhattan.