Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The "Trouble with Antibiotics" in U.S. animal agriculture production

Frontline last night had an excellent report, the Trouble with Antibiotics, on the plausible link between dangerous antibiotic resistant diseases and the overuse of antibiotics in U.S. meat production.

Poultry and hog producers use large amounts of antibiotics even in healthy animals, as a growth promoter and to prevent disease. As bacteria evolve to become resistant to these antibiotics, we lose important tools for treating deadly diseases in humans, including Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

For readers who want to inspect the scientific evidence for themselves, here are some links to research mentioned in the Frontline report.

Jessica Rinsky, Lance Price (interviewed in the report), and colleagues found livestock-associated MRSA in workers from industrial livestock operations but not workers from antibiotic-free livestock operations.

Andrew Waters, Lance Price, and colleagues found that MRSA bacteria reaches meat on supermarket shelves.

Joan Casey, Brian Schwartz, and colleagues found in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that antibiotic-resistant bacteria cases in humans were geographically associated with the proximity of nearby meat producers in Pennsylvania. The Frontline interviewer did a great job questioning the scientists and explaining both the strengths and limits of this type of geographic association.

Concerned about the Frontline story, the federal government's National Pork Board has been scrambling to persuade people not to worry about this issue. Reuters reports today that the NPB is funding an online public information campaign to defend antibiotic use. The most damning part of the Reuters report alleges that the NPB is using search engine optimization (SEO) tools so that web users seeking information about antibiotics are directed to industry-friendly web sources.

Both Reuters and the Frontline report describe the pork board as an "industry" association, but the National Pork Board is a semi-public checkoff program. The U.S. Congress created this board, the Secretary of Agriculture appoints its members from a slate of candidates suggested by the industry, and the federal government uses its powers of taxation to collect the "mandatory assessment" -- a tax -- that funds this public information campaign. This is not a voluntary industry association. All pork board messages must be approved by the federal government as its own "government speech," so our government is complicit in this public information campaign to rebut the Frontline report.

The industry representatives interviewed in the Frontline report didn't really dispute any of the facts, but they engaged in a rhetorical game of shifting the burden of proof. They argued that no further regulation is needed, because there is not yet certain proof that some of the research associations represent true cause and effect. Since nothing is ever certain in this type of research, the industry representatives can feel safe that no level of evidence would ever clear their hurdle.

One of the best passages in the Frontline report was an interview with FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. The interviewer asked why FDA does not collect information about the quantity of antibiotics administered by meat producers. Though Hamburg squirmed under the question, she essentially confirmed that FDA wanted this information but could not get it because of industry opposition. In other words, the industry representatives say no action should be taken until we have certain proof, while simultaneously hindering access to the data needed to investigate the question.

The industry is pursuing some voluntary steps to reduce antibiotic use for the purpose of "growth promotion," but it has defined this term narrowly so that most antibiotic use even in healthy animals will still continue.

The Frontline report is strongly recommended. Now is the time for stronger measures to restrain the overuse of antibiotics in U.S. meat production.

Frontline, October 14, 2014.

1 comment:

RCash said...

Unfortunately, although the FDA has shown interest in receiving the data on antibiotic quantity, they're continuing the utilitarian pattern that we're all accustomed to. Wait until people are harmed before taking action. The Frontline video is a great piece and gives some needed transparency to the issue.