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College Student Takes BEEF Editor To Task Over Antibiotic Resistance Article

Last week, I had the opportunity for an email conversation with a young man who was writing a critique for his community college English class. He chose to critique an old article I wrote about antibiotic resistance that resulted from the first NIAA antibiotics symposium.

Lucky me.

Here’s his initial email:

“I’m doing a critique essay on your article Competing Factors Compound The Antibiotic Debate followed by a research paper on factory farms and antibiotic resistance.  I would like a bit more insight from you so that I may decide whether to argue for or against use of antibiotics in Farm Animals. 

“From your publication afore mentioned it seems you are saying the scare that antibiotics for livestock can cause antibiotics resistance/superbug is purely emotional.   Do you still hold that opinion in the face of the CDC and World Health Organization who say science shows that antibiotics are resistant because of antibiotic over use?

“Furthermore, can you provide me or point me in the direction to data that would prove your case?

“Also, what would you say to people who may suggest that you are a big ag journalist whos opinion cannot be trusted?”

My answer was brief and fairly curt. Basically I told him that antibiotic resistance is an incredibly complex issue and trying to pin the blame on any single use of antibiotics is either intellectually lazy or agenda driven. And neither of those will help find answers. Here’s what I got as a critique:

Critique of Burt Rutherford's View of The Antibiotic Debate

“The Center for Disease Control [CDC] and World Health Organization [WHO] has publically announced that the world is approaching a health crisis. Bacteria are developing antibiotic resistant genes at a faster rate than pharmaceutical companies can produce new and effective antibiotics.  The fear is that unless steps are taken to prevent bacterial resistant genes from spreading the world will slip back into the preantibiotic age where we lose ability to treat infections like tuberculosis, malaria, HIV infections, cancer treatment infections or a simple skin infection.  The WHO and CDC have recommended that use of antibiotics for the growth of livestock be stopped expediently because of the risk of increased development of microbial resistance.  Contrary to the WHO and CDC position's, Burt Rutherford, a graduate of Colorado State University with a degree in Agriculture Journalism and currently Senior Editor of Beef Magazine, suggests in his article, Competing Factors Compound The Antibiotic Debate, the public opinion against the use of antibiotics indiscriminately on livestock is purely emotional and ignores scientific data.

“The purpose of Mr. Rutherford's article is to provide an answer to his readers about claims that emerging antibiotic resistant bacteria can be reduced by halting antibiotic use by cattlemen on livestock.  In doing so, Mr. Rutherford cites Mr. Scott Hurd who in the past held the position of Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety at the USDA.  As reported by Rutherford, Mr. Hurd references 140 different data points that show negligible risk from antibiotic fed livestock contributing to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria.  Moreover, Rutherford cites Hurd as saying antibiotic resistance is a naturally occurring phenomenon that is found almost everywhere on earth to include places rarely frequented by humans.  Mr. Rutherford expounds his position coinciding with Mr. Hurd that the public's outcry against use of antibiotics for food producing animals is purely emotional and not based on scientific research.  Mr. Rutherford's reference from Mr. Hurd notes how the public may be rejecting the science aforementioned because of political, religious or philosophical reasons that scientific data cannot sway.  Rutherford offers his sympathies toward cattlemen who may be troubled by this line of thinking. 

“Upon evaluation of Mr. Rutherford's article, I did not discover any citations that would lead an objective reader to view any of the 140 data points used by Mr. Hurd to make a case for the continued use of antibiotics in livestock.  Additionally, Rutherford shares a claim by Mr. Hurd that the Infectious Disease Society of America states antibiotic resistant bacteria in humans does not correlate in any way with agriculture.  This information could not be substantiated with the information given.  Even a casual reader with minimal understanding can discern that this article is full of oversimplification.  While arguing that bacterial resistance is a naturally occurring phenomenon, Rutherford does not mention the primary argument coming from the public wherein relentless antibiotic overuse and indiscriminant exposure on the farm increases the rate at which bacteria can develop resistance to antibiotics.  Furthermore, Rutherford definitively states that those opposed to antibiotic use for livestock are driven purely by an irrational emotion.  Rutherford fails to point out that many of the cries for reduction of antibiotic use for livestock come from prestigious organizations tasked with the health and well being of our nation and the world such as the WHO and CDC.  Mr. Rutherford tries to drum up sympathy for cattlemen with another generalization, noting that cattlemen are frustrated and are in the business to produce safe and remarkable beef.  In this instance, Mr. Rutherford fails to point out that these cattlemen are conducting business for capital gain and the use of antibiotics provides a competitive edge by increasing the weight and health of their cattle for increased profits.  Finally, Mr. Rutherford did not disclose to the reader that his role as Senior Editor for Beef Magazine is to "help keep Beef readers informed of trends and production practices to bolster the bottom line," which is a clear conflict of interest and blatantly dishonest" (Contact).

“After carefully considering who the author is and the information provided in the article, I cannot recommend this reading to a serious audience.  While ignoring cries from the medical community, Mr. Rutherford suggest those who are concerned with antibiotic resistance coming from farms are delusional.  Because Mr. Rutherford did not provide sources to support his claim that antibiotic resistance does not come from farms, his argument is empty. This is not a good article to read if one is trying to discern this very real and dynamic problem of antibiotic resistance. “

I’m not looking for vindication. He asked for my help, I didn’t give him much, and as a result, things didn’t go so well for me. And that’s okay. If that’s his honest opinion, I admire his courage in sharing it with me.

But I’d like your thoughts. So here’s what I am asking: How would you have answered his questions, had he sent the email to you?  What’s your opinion of his critique of the article? Are we doing a good job covering the antibiotic resistance issue or are we too one-sided? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.



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