Filtering the Distortion: What the GAO Report on Antibiotic Resistance Really Says

The pork and beef industries are having a field day with the recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on antibiotic resistance—and they are distorting the findings dramatically. Both industries are saying that the GAO found insufficient evidence to link antibiotic use in food animals and antibiotic resistance in humans. But what the report really tells us is that the FDA and USDA are not doing a good enough job collecting data on the connection between antibiotic use and resistance.

Two years ago, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D–NY) asked the GAO, the impartial research arm of Congress, to look into the efforts of two federal agencies (FDA and USDA) to curb antibiotic resistance that results from the inappropriate use of antimicrobials in food animal production. The GAO’s mandates included an examination of the extent to which these federal agencies are collecting data on the issue, as well as examinations of lessons learned by FDA and regulators in Denmark and the European Union. I think it’s very important to note that Rep. Slaughter did not ask the GAO to evaluate the extensive scientific literature connecting the use of antibiotics in food animal production to antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. Read More >

Do Genetically Engineered Foods Really Need to Be Regulated Less?

Nina Federoff, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and professor at Penn State University penned an opinion piece in the New York Times recently, asking for less regulation of genetically engineered (GE) crops. Professor Federoff would like to see more grant money available for research and more scientists working on the development of GE foods, but she states in her article that the regulatory bars of the EPA, USDA, and FDA are set too high and are stifling scientists from making innovations.

Ignoring the rest of her argument that GE seeds dramatically improve crop yields (they don’t and in fact agricecological farming methods are not only better for the environment but better for yields), reduce the use of chemicals (they don’t; pesticide use has increased since the introduction of GE crops in the U.S.), improve the lives of farmers (not in India or the U.S.), and have not been shown to cause harm to the environment (she forgot about the development of superweeds, pollution of waters, and harm to soil), let’s focus on her idea that regulations are too complicated and stringent. As you will see, this is simply not the case. In fact, regulations may be too lax, as they allow corporations driven by profit, not protecting public health, to drive the research (or lack thereof) to demonstrate safety, and, as well explained in many of the above articles, the U.S. experience with GM crops has indeed led to environmental problems. Read More >

CLF opposes Rehberg amendment, antibiotic-resistant Salmonella infections in children

The FY 2012 Agriculture appropriations bill, voted out of the House Appropriations Committee last week, includes an amendment that would severely limit the authority of FDA to regulate the use of antimicrobials, including antibiotics, in food animal production-a key concern of public health researchers.  Sponsored by Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT), the amendment would prohibit the agency from spending any money appropriated by the bill on actions “intended to restrict the use of a substance or a compound” unless certain conditions are met.  Although the amendment is broad-affecting any “substance or compound,” notably including tobacco-Rep. Rehberg has told The Washington Post that his goal was to block FDA action on the use of antimicrobials by food animal producers.  Indeed, the amendment would, among other things, preempt upcoming FDA restrictions on the misuse use of cephalosporin-the antibiotic of choice for serious Salmonella infections in children.  (Researchers have reported increased incidence of cephalosporin-resistant Salmonella infections [Foley and Lynne, 2008].)   Joining many others in the public health community, researchers at the Center for a Livable Future recently sent a letter to Congress , urging members to strike the amendment from the legislation before final passage.

The Rehberg amendment reads as follows (we have broken it into numbered and lettered points to make the language easier to follow):

None of the funds made available by this Act may be used by the Food and Drug Administration to write, prepare, develop or publish a proposed, interim, or final rule, regulation or guidance that is intended to restrict the use of a substance or a compound unless the Secretary

  1. bases such rule, regulation or guidance on hard science (and not on such factors as cost and consumer behavior), and
  2. determines that the weight of toxicological evidence, epidemiological evidence, and risk assessments clearly justifies such action,
  3. including a demonstration that a product containing such substance or compound

a.  is more harmful to users than a product that does not contain such substance or compound, or

b.  in the case of pharmaceuticals, has been demonstrated by scientific study to have none of the purported benefits. Read More >

Study finds new MRSA strain in European milk

cows-at-feed-trough

Researchers at Cambridge University say they have found a new strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in milk from England, Scotland and Denmark, which they are calling LGA251.

The findings – published online by The Lancet Infectious Diseases – can be seen as a further signal that the routine use of antibiotics in industrial food animal production is producing novel public health risks, and diminishing the effectiveness of antibiotics in human medicine.

Center for a Livable Future Director Robert Lawrence said the new findings “underscore the urgent need to protect the effectiveness of a critical medical and public health resource – and this unambiguously translates to the obvious step of eliminating the irresponsible administration of antibiotics to food animals.”

In December, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed that 80% of the antibiotics used in the United States are used in food animals.

The authors of the Lancet study stressed that current testing protocols would fail to identify this new strain as MRSA, and that “new diagnostic guidelines for the detection of MRSA should consider the inclusion of tests for [LGA251].”

Nationwide Poll: 80% of America’s Moms are Concerned About Antibiotic Use in Industrial Food Animal Production

When moms talk you can bet lawmakers listen, not to mention food retailers. That is exactly what the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming is counting on following the release of a nationwide poll of 804 American moms, which found that 80 percent are concerned that food animals produced on industrial farms are being given large amounts of antibiotics. Each of these moms is a  registered voter and has kids aged 16 or younger.  Not only were most of the moms polled concerned about antibiotic use, more than three-quarters said they would support federal regulations to limit its use in food animals.

No doubt this news has the animal agriculture industry concerned. Despite the warnings from scientists and public health experts of the risks of the low-dose use of antibiotics in livestock and poultry,  food animal producers have for years fought proposed federal regulations claiming there is little proof the practice poses a risk to humans. Top leaders of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration disagree with animal producers. Former FDA Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein testified in front of Congress stating the links are undeniable and in a letter to the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) the director of the CDC, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, confirmed that the CDC, “feels there is strong scientific evidence of a link between antibiotic use in food animals and antibiotic resistance in humans.”

More and more research continues to pour in, almost on a daily basis, linking antibiotic-use in intensive food animal production facilities to the growing threat of antibiotic resistant infections in people. Earlier this month, a Pew funded nationwide study of grocery store meats revealed nearly 50 percent of the meat and poultry we buy carries antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and that DNA tests indicate the animals themselves were the primary sources. Read More >

Will the U.S. Hog Industry Ever Kick Its Reliance on Low-Dose Antibiotics?

The editors of Scientific American recently encouraged U.S. hog farmers to “follow Denmark and stop giving farm animals low-dose antibiotics.” Sixteen years ago, in order to reduce the threat of increased development of antibiotic resistant bacteria in their food system and the environment, Denmark phased in an antibiotic growth promotant ban in food animal production. Guess what? According to Denmark’s Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries the ban is working and the industry has continued to thrive. The government agency found that Danish livestock and poultry farmers used 37% less antibiotics in 2009 than in 1994, leading to overall reductions of antimicrobial resistance countrywide.

hogabgraph1
Courtesy: Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, Danish Veterinary and Food Administration, July, 2010

Except for a few early hiccups regarding the methods used in weaning piglets, production levels of livestock and poultry have either stayed the same or increased. So how did Danish producers make this transition, and why isn’t the U.S. jumping to follow suit? Like many things in industrial agriculture, the answer is not clear.

If any country knows how to intensively produce food animals, particularly pigs, it is Denmark. In 2008, farmers produced about 27 million hogs. In fact, the Scandinavian country claims to be the world’s largest exporter of pork. Thus Scientific American editors argue that the Danish pork production system should serve as a suitable model to compare to ours. U.S. agriculture economists from Iowa State University agree. In a 2003 report, Drs. Helen Jensen and Dermot Hayes stated that Denmark’s pork industry is “…at least as sophisticated as that of the United States… and is therefore a suitable market for evaluating a ban on antibiotic growth promotants (AGPs).” Read More >

New FDA Numbers Reveal Food Animals Consume Lion’s Share of Antibiotics

Antibiotics, one of the world’s greatest medical discoveries, are slowly losing their effectiveness in fighting bacterial infections and the massive use of the drugs in food animals may be the biggest culprit. The growing threat of antibiotic resistance is largely due to the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in both people and animals, which leads to an increase in “super-bacteria”. However, people use a much smaller portion of antibiotics sold in this country compared to the amount set aside for food animals. In fact, according to new data just released by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), of the antibiotics sold in 2009 for both people and food animals almost 80% were reserved for livestock and poultry. A huge portion of those antibiotics were never intended to fight bacterial infections, rather producers most likely administered them in continuous low-dosages through feed or water to increase the speed at which their animals grew. And that has many public health experts and scientists troubled.

For years scientists concerned about the threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria in food animal production have been trying to figure out just how much antibiotics producers are using each year.  The best they could do was come up with rough estimates. That is because the data was never publicly available, until now. Read More >

Drug amounts for food animals now reported by FDA: Thanks, it’s about time!

19240The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a report last Thursday (Dec 9, 2010) that 13.1 million kilograms of antimicrobial drugs were sold or distributed for use in food-producing animals in 2009 in the United States (pdf). Why is this important? It represents the first time the FDA has reported the quantity of antimicrobial drugs that are available for use in the production of swine, dairy cow, cattle, and poultry in the US.

The recent FDA value also settles a longstanding dispute between the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and an industry lobbyist group, the Animal Health Institute (AHI). UCS estimated that in 1998, 13.4 million kilograms of antimicrobials were used in food animal production, while for the same year AHI reported that just 8.1 million kilograms were used (Mellon et al. 2001).  The new FDA report shows that UCS was much close to the actual amount than AHI. 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 >

Reading between the lines: FDA indicates consumer preference not a reason for salmon labeling

FDA hosted a hearing on Tuesday, September 21 to discuss the hypothetical labeling of genetically engineered (GE) salmon. Just fifteen hours earlier the FDA finished hearing the debate on GE salmon approval, which gave the impression that FDA was moving faster on the issue than it actually is.  This compressed schedule caused frustration among experts, leading George Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety to say “it is inappropriate to hold hearings on labeling before [GE salmon] are approved.”

In oral statements made before the FDA panel, Food and Water Watch (FWW) speaker Patty Lovera and the Alexis Baden-Mayer of Organic Consumers Association were not in favor of GE salmon, although if approved, Lovera recommended mandatory labeling of GE salmon. When pushed by the FDA panel on the material reasons for labeling, pro-labeling advocates often cited a lack of data on allergenicity of GE salmon or consumer preference. In a major break with other consumer advocacy groups, Gregory Jaffe from the Center for Science in the Public Interest indicated a preference for no GE labeling.

Salmon fillets in the grocery store (source: http://www.ctbites.com/home/2009/10/14/the-fresh-market-opens-in-westport.html)

Salmon fillets in the grocery store (source: http://www.ctbites.com/home/2009/10/14/the-fresh-market-opens-in-westport.html)

If GE salmon is approved, the FDA has indicated that labeling will be based only on material differences in GE salmon compared to non-GE salmon, and not based on consumer preferences for GE labeling. These views may not be consistent with surveys that show 70% of American consumers want GE food to be labeled, from data reported by Jaffe.

Industry groups, including Richard Carnevale of Animal Health Institute, stood in line to argue that there were no material reasons why GE salmon should be labeled. The CEO of AquaBounty, Richard Clothier gave a series of other arguments against mandatory labeling, including the “slippery slope” that may lead to labeling of all GE foods and if labeling “complicated the process it would be a pity.” It appears that all stakeholders, including the FDA, realize this is a complicated process, and are willing to work through the difficult decisions.

If GE salmon is approved, consumers will have the ultimate say in its success. Salmon is the 3rd most consumed seafood product in the US and its popularity and high market price will likely continue,whether or not consumers know what kind of salmon they are eating.  It remains to be seen if the aquaculture industry realizes that the rising interest in communicating where and how our food is raised may be a benefit as opposed to a liability.    Elliot Entis, the founder of AquaBounty, indicated he would be in favor of voluntary labeling as a type of product branding. Entis was in favor of calling their salmon “Panama Reds,” although one can only wonder if this is just a red herring.

– Dave Love