We Need to Collect Data about Antibiotics Used on Farms

Courtesy: Flickr Lucid Nightmare

Which antibiotics are used on which farms? Photo courtesy: Flickr Lucid Nightmare

You have probably heard the oft-cited statistic that 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States end up in food-producing animals rather than people. We know this because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires drug manufacturers to report the amount, in kilograms, of antibiotics that are sold, and whether they are intended for use in food animal production or medicine.

What may surprise you is that we have no idea how the 14.8 million kilograms of antibiotics sold for use in food-producing animals are actually used on farms. We do not know Read More >

FDA Enters Withdrawal: Agency Must Pursue Limits on Penicillins and Tetracyclines

Yesterday, a federal magistrate ordered the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to move ahead with a decades-old effort to withdraw approvals for several uses of antibiotics considered “critically important” to human health by the World Health Organization.  This is a solid win for public health advocates and comes as FDA has proven unwilling to take seriously the threat of antibiotic resistance.

In 1977, FDA proposed withdrawing approvals for the use of penicillin antibiotics for growth promotion and the use of several tetracycline antibiotics in animal feed.  Research showed then—more than three decades ago—that these uses were likely to select for antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can infect humans.  Unfortunately, lobbyists for the pharmaceutical and animal agricultural industries persuaded Congress to delay the restrictions pending additional research.  FDA did more research but took no further action for the next 34 years. Read More >

Understanding foodborne microbial hazards for smarter food policies

One in six Americans contracts a foodborne illness each year (CDC). Such illness can mean an unpleasant day of vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and/or worse— hospitalization or death in rare cases. “There’s something that can be said about the problem of foodborne illness, that can’t be said of many other public health problems of the day” said Elisabeth Hagan, Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA, who opened a January 25th foodborne hazards conference convened at the Pew Charitable Trusts offices in Washington DC, “and that is: Foodborne illness is preventable.

The day-long conference “Managing the Risk of Foodborne Hazards: STECs and Antibiotic-Resistant Pathogens” was organized jointly by Pew and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Hagan and other conference speakers focused their attention on antibiotic-resistant pathogens and shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (E. coli). A key message that I heard from several speakers was that we know enough today to develop policies that can enable action in addressing the most pressing foodborne hazards.

Ground BeefCentral to the development of smarter food policies is incorporating our understanding the ecology of foodborne microbes. For example, understanding the ecology of toxin-producing E. coli strains can improve our ability to detect the right types of E. coli in tainted foods. In another example, nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in food animal production creates a persistent collection of antibiotic-resistant bacterial genes or a ‘resistome’ on farms that is difficult to dismantle. Antibiotic-resistance genes transferred to pathogenic bacteria creates a health hazards for animal workers, slaughterhouse workers, farm neighbors, and to consumers who handle or prepare raw meat in their kitchens.

Antibiotic-resistant pathogens

The Pew/CSPI conference focused on antibiotics in food animals because in 2009 nearly 80% by weight of all antimicrobials were sold for use in food animal, and the remaining 20% by weight were used in human medicine, as reported last year by Ralph Loglici on the Livable Future Blog.

Resistance is an inevitable result of using antibiotics on food animals or humans. In the words of Quijing Zhang of Iowa State University, “[it is] always going to happen.” Once gut bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, they can trade the blueprints for resistance to other beneficial bacteria or with pathogenic bacteria in a giant microbial swap meet called ‘the resistome.’

 The microbial world’s resistome and our own human-centered biome collide more often than we think—just talk to a health care provider about hospital-acquired antibiotic resistant infections or read the latest 2008 report on the quality of retail meats from the U.S. National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System.

 When humans take antibiotics or animals are given antibiotics, these are individual decisions—and as Dr. Stuart Levy of Tufts University pointed out, “[these individual decisions have] societal effects when antibiotics are mismanaged, such that every dose of antibiotics has a consequence.” Levy underscores the severity of current practices, saying, “the fact that we are still practicing [the use of antibiotics in animal production] is an embarrassment and a mistake.”

Read More >

Straight Talk About The Risks of Feeding Antibiotics to Food Animals

Courtesy: CDC

Courtesy: CDC

It is time for some straight talk about the risks of using massive amounts of antibiotics in livestock and poultry. I don’t know one infectious disease expert who would disagree that there are direct links between antibiotic use in food animals and antibiotic resistance in people. Period. If you don’t believe me just ask Rear Admiral Ali Kahn, Assistant Surgeon General and Acting Deputy Director for the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Disease. Just this summer, during a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Dr. Kahn testified that, “there is unequivocal evidence and relationship between [the] use of antibiotics in animals and [the] transmission of antibiotic-resistant bacteria causing adverse effects in humans.”

Knowing this, I continue to be frustrated with the fact that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack does not publically recognize that the industrial food animal production system is a leading contributor to the increase of antibiotic resistance in pathogens that infect people and animals. Earlier this month at a National Cattlemen’s Beef Association meeting, Vilsack reportedly responded to a question about the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) by saying the, “USDA’s public position is, and always has been, that antibiotics need to be used judiciously, and we believe they already are.”

That quote had me scratching my head when I read it in a New York Times Op-Ed a couple of weeks ago. The Times’ editors interpreted the statement as saying Vilsack believes there is no need to change antibiotic use policy among food animal producers. That contradicts the positions of both the FDA and CDC. The Times pointed out that while neither regulatory agency is doing enough to address the problem both, at least, recognize that current antibiotic use should change. Read More >

AVMA leadership missing key facts on antibiotics in food animals

Dr. Ron DeHaven, CEO and Executive VP of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)*, spoke last week to the pork industry in Kansas City, MO. DeHaven opposes legislation to ban the use of non-therapeutic (growth promoting) antibiotics and antibiotics with human uses from food animal production. DeHaven used this opportunity to spread misinformation about the reality and consequences of non-therapeutic antibiotic use and food safety.

screen-shot-2010-03-10-at-120437-pm

Early MRSA infections. http://www.jiujitsuforums.com/wiki/File:Mrsa7.jpg

DeHaven seems to understand the biological basis for antibiotic resistance, by saying “antimicrobial resistance is caused by widespread use of antimicrobials in food production systems, and hence the more we expose microorganisms to antibiotics the more likely they are to develop that resistance.” The problem arises in his dismissal of the impacts of using antibiotics in food animals—a practice that experts recognize as a public health threat (Silbergeld et al., 2008).

In his talk DeHaven said, “there really is no scientific evidence to confirm just how, if, and to what extent that exposure represents a risk to human health… there has been really no case of human infection with resistant bacteria that has been proven to be caused by the use of antimicrobials in food animals.” This statement is disingenuous and does not acknowledge published findings to the contrary (Voss et al., 2005; Huijsdens et al., 2006) demonstrating MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) transmission from pigs to a pig farmer, and between pig farmers and their family.

Reported cases of disease are only the tip of the iceberg, therefore we expect that many more cases of community associated (i.e. non-hospital) antibiotic resistant bacterial diseases have originated from factory farms. A recent study in the Journal Emerging Infectious Diseases shows that community associated diseases are increasing at an alarming rate— over 33% increase annually for MRSA in the US from 1999 to 2006 (Klein et al., 2009). While all cases of MRSA may not originate on factory farms, we can’t rule out factory farms and as one source of MRSA (Nunan and Young 2007).

In addition to MRSA, resistant E. coli have been detected in cattle and pigs given antimicrobial drugs (Alexander et al., 2008; Rosengren et al., 2008). When antibiotics are given to food animals, as much as 75% of those drugs are excreted in waste, which contributes to the environmental burden of antibiotic residues and the development of resistant bacteria in the environment (Chee-Sanford et al., 2009). Regulations to reduce or ban antibiotics used in food animals appears to be one clear way we can reduce one source of resistant bacteria.

At the end of his talk, DeHaven takes a stance in support of greater oversight of drug delivery to animals by veterinarians. This would be laudable, except for a giant loop-hole he introduces when saying “veterinary involvement needs to be consistent or proportionate with the risk of those antibiotics.” This insinuates that continuing the practice of selling antibiotics over-the-counter (OTC) in feed to farmers, with no veterinary oversight, is acceptable. The AVMA is investigating other ways of relaxing food animal veterinary oversight, with increased involvement of veterinary technician and electronics prescriptions of antibiotics. With region-specific shortage of mixed animal veterinarians in the US, can you blame the AVMA for feeling squeamish about its options for taking care of the burgeoning numbers of food animals? Read More >

Congressional briefing by meat industry provides no new information

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. Read More >

Antibiotics in Farming: Has Tyson Foods Shot Itself in the Foot?

-From the Animal Welfare Approved web site

Tyson Foods’ recent agreement to settle a lawsuit for falsely advertising its “raised without antibiotics” chicken brand has received limited media coverage – no doubt to the relief of the company’s boardroom. And with an annual turnover of nearly $27 billion, they probably won’t sweat too much over the $5 million that the company must now shell out as compensation to unhappy customers.

In falsely marketing its chicken meat as produced from birds “raised without antibiotics” while still feeding them antibiotics, Tyson Foods was shamelessly exploiting the growing public concern over the excessive use of antibiotics in industrial farming, particularly in the form of non-therapeutic growth promoters.

But while the intensive meat industry continues to vigorously oppose any attempts to reduce antibiotic use in farming, the irony is that Tyson Foods may well have inadvertently shot itself in the foot by publicly admitting that the overuse of certain antibiotics in industrial farming really is a threat to human health.

Originally published on the Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) web site. AWA was founded in 2006 as a market-based solution to growing consumer interest in how farm animals are raised and desire to know where their food is coming from and how it is produced.

Antibiotics: Misused on Factory Farms

Did you know according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, an estimated 70% of antibiotics in the U.S. are used on animals?

To promote growth?

A former research fellow, Jay Graham, MBA Ph.D., recently sat down to talk about the reality of antibiotic misuse on factory farms.  This discussion is in part a follow-up to our March 5th release that found more evidence of another potential link between industrial food animal production and exposures to antibiotic resistant pathogens.

For additional resources and to read the studies he references, please visit our new Antibiotics Resource page.

Will I Need a Prescription to Fill Up My Tank With Ethanol?

Courtesy: natjoschock/flikr

Hats off to New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof for his recent stories (“Pathogens in Our Pork” & “Our Pigs, Our Food, Our Health” ) spotlighting the serious public health risks of overusing antibiotics in industrial farm animal production. If you haven’t read them, you should. I don’t want to downplay the importance of Mr. Kristof’s reports, but in the public health and animal agriculture worlds the issue has long been a point of contention. Organizations like the American Medical Association, American Public Health Association and Keep Antibiotics Working sounded the alarms years ago regarding antibiotic resistance and the need to end the practice of adding antibiotics to animal feed simply to promote growth. Lawmakers have been trying to pass the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) for the past few years, which calls for an end to the practice. This year, it looks like it has a good chance of passing. Feedstuff’s Washington Correspondent, Sally Shuff, reports New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter plans to introduce PAMTA 2009 today along with the CEO of Chipotle restaurants. Now that the animal feed issue is prominently placed in the public eye, I wanted to shine a light on another potential source of antimicrobial resistance, ethanol production. Read More >