February 24, 2010

Congressional briefing by meat industry provides no new information

Dave Love

Dave Love

Associate Scientist, Public Health & Sustainable Aquaculture Project

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

The Meat Industry* hosted a Congressional briefing on Tuesday (2/23/2010) in Washington D.C. on antibiotics in livestock and poultry production. The purpose of the briefing was to uncover, in the moderator’s words, the ‘true science’ on antibiotics. Contrary to his assertion, there was very little science presented.

Instead, the briefing featured anecdotes from two veterinarians (Dr. Craig Rowles and Dr. Leon Weaver) who each spoke on how they responsibly manage their own farms. I’m curious as to how representative this is of most farms. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a live-in veterinarian on every farm to diagnose diseases and prescribe medication on a day-to-day basis? Rowles admitted that typically veterinarians visit swine farms only once a month.

A third speaker (Dr. Timothy Cummings) who focused on poultry provided no scientific findings that supported his anecdotal recollections of flock health management with antibiotics in feed – I found this surprising, given his affiliation with the College of Veterinary Medicine at Mississippi State University. It would be reasonable to assume that he would have some interesting published data on antibiotics use in poultry to share.

The final speaker was a DVM/PhD researcher from West Texas A&M University (Dr. Guy Loneragan) who discussed antibiotic use in beef cattle. This was the first speaker to engage the audience with any sort of science, though his slides with data were not cited.  I appreciate Loneragan responding to my email with three citations for his slides.  His characterization of the science behind antimicrobial resistance as a black-and-white issue was misleading and polarizing, though I did appreciate his discussion of a risk benefit approach that implicitly acknowledged that there were risks to using antibiotics.

Many of the attendees left before the end of the briefing, and some who stayed as I did were shocked when the moderator abruptly closed the floor to questions from the general audience following one slightly contentious question. The question was from a member of the Union of Concerned Scientist, who asked what the panel knew about the amounts (in lbs) of antibiotics used annually in the US. Cummings, a poultry expert responded “it is tough to come up with a value about how much antibiotics use is out there, to be frank,” while experts from the pork and cattle industries deflected the question completely. The UCS questioner replied that Denmark knows how much antibiotics are used but we in the US cannot, which makes performing risk assessments a challenge.

I was hoping for more from the briefing, but in reality the briefing did very little to address the 800 lb gorilla in the room – the public health risks stemming from antibiotics in food animals.

The Food Safety News covered the latest briefing in a web article, with a few of my quotes.

This Congressional briefing was just one of several on this topic in the past few months, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (recap, slides) and the Pew Commission (recap) each held briefings.

If you want a summary of what the peer-reviewed research is telling us, please see the Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America – A Report of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.

– Dave Love

*National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Chicken Council, National Pork Producers Council, National Milk Producers Federation, National Turkey Federation, American Meat Institute and National Meat Association

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