February 11, 2010
I hope every lawmaker on Capitol Hill had a chance to watch CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric’s two-part investigative series on the risks of using antibiotics as growth promoters in food animals. After viewing both pieces it would be difficult for most people to question the immediate need to pass the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA). PAMTA would effectively end the practice of administering constant low doses of antibiotics important to human health in food animals in the hopes of reducing the spread of antibiotic-resistant diseases among the general public. As we mentioned Tuesday, the first installment of the series highlighted the connections between industrial food animal production and the growing number of antibiotic resistant infections across the country. Couric’s second installment dismantled several arguments which critics of PAMTA often use to dissuade passage. I’ll point out just two.
First, the report puts to rest the deceptive claims by PAMTA opponents who point to outdated data from Denmark that they say proves an antibiotic-ban in the U.S. would hurt farmers. Opponents allude that the Danish ban on non-therapeutic antibiotics in food animals was a failure, claiming the numbers show the ban increased the mortality of piglets and required the increase of therapeutic antibiotic usage to treat sick pigs. Couric’s second report opened in Denmark, focusing on the “Danish Experience.” Farmers and researchers there tell a much different story. Couric interviewed Danish hog farmer Soren Helmer, who said, “We thought we could not produce pigs as efficient as we did before. But that was proven wrong.” Couric reported, “since the ban the Danish pork industry has grown by 43 percent making it one of the top exporters in the world.”
As I pointed out in an earlier blog post, Danish scientists, from the National Food Institute at the Technical University of Denmark, Drs. Frank Møller Aarestrup and Henrik Wegener, submitted last July written testimony for a U.S. House Committees Rules hearing on PAMTA. They wrote, “As you may be aware, representatives of organizations funded by U.S. agri-business have criticized and mis-represented the facts on the Danish ban of antibiotics since its inception.” The scientists found that the total antibiotic use for pork decreased by 50% and that piglet deaths initially increased, but after improving animal living conditions those numbers have since dipped below pre-ban numbers.
The second argument Couric’s report dismantles is PAMTA opponents’ claims that the ban will not be cost effective. Couric interviewed the National Pork Board’s Assistant Vice President of Science and Technology, Dr. Liz Wagstrom, who seemed to be towing the same industry line. Wagstrom told Couric that an antibiotic ban will increase costs and that, “if we did the same thing in the United States, we would likely see small producers pushed out of business, we’d have more sick and dying pigs, and none of that would result in a benefit to the U.S. consumer.” Immediately following Wagstrom’s soundbite Couric reported that, “without growth-promoting antibiotics, it only costs $5 more for every 100 pounds (5 cents per pound) of pork brought to market in this country.” To hammer home the point, Couric found a Pennsylvania turkey farmer, Duane Koch, who says he’s been raising his animals without antibiotics for “roughly 14 years.” Koch told Couric the costs to convert to antibiotic-free facilities are low and since he’s made the transition to antibiotic-free his business is more profitable. Couric reported that the costs are not much more at the grocery store either. She reported, “people buying antibiotic free turkey thigh meat will spend around $1.40 versus $1.20 for conventionally raised birds. “
So what does Koch do differently? Koch told Couric that by providing his birds with higher-quality feed and improving living conditions they are naturally healthier. He said that by giving the turkeys more space, “we can get weights that are really close to what they’re getting, you know, with the growth promotants.”
While a ban could impose small cost increases to producers the savings in public health will most likely offset those costs exponentially. Couric interviewed our own Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, a nationally renowned expert in antimicrobial resistance and its relation to agriculture and professor of environmental health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Dr. Silbergeld told Couric, “I think the Danish and European experience indicate that there will be real and measurable public health benefits. There’ll be improvements in food safety and actually in the prevalence of drug resistant infections in people.” Couric reported that, “after the ban, a Danish study confirmed that removing antibiotics from farms drastically reduced antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals and food.”
Dr. Aarestrup told Couric that he fears if the U.S. doesn’t impose a ban soon drug-resistant diseases in people will only spread. Aarestrup said, “it’s not going to be a time bomb that goes off like this. It’s something that’s slowly getting more and more complicated, more difficult for us to actually treat infections.”