Fact or Fiction: Public Health Risks and Immigration

Weeding sugar beets near Ft. Collins, 1972.

Weeding sugar beets near Ft. Collins, 1972.

Opponents of immigration reform have jumped on the Ebola crisis, stigmatizing immigrants regardless of whether they came from an Ebola-affected country or not. These opponents falsely claim that immigrants, especially undocumented ones, are a risk to the public’s health due to all the nasty diseases they might be carrying!

In fact, the real risk to public health comes from the environmental and working hazards that immigrants, who make up 72% of the agricultural workforce in the United States, are exposed to on a daily basis while maintaining our nation’s food supply. (The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future recently called for action to address the public health risks that immigrant and migratory agricultural workers are Read More >

The Science Is Clear: Antibiotic Resistance and Food Animal Production

Rep. Slaughter with Lawrence and Price

As a panel of scientific experts spoke at Thursday’s Congressional briefings on the misuse of antibiotics in food animal production, a theme emerged: There is no longer any debate.

With evidence that is now irrefutable, the panelists addressed more than 120 Congressional staff and others in the Rayburn House Office Building and the Senate Visitor Center. Each echoed a plain and simple message: The science is clear on two points. First, by inappropriately giving antibiotics to livestock*, we promote the growth of new strains of bacteria that are resistant to existing antibiotics and can infect humans. And, second, that those antibiotic-resistant bacteria pose a serious, expensive, and sometimes fatal, risk for humans. The humans at risk, by the way, are not only the humans who eat meat or work with livestock. All humans are at increased risk for infection by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including vegetarians and those who never have and never will set foot near a chicken, turkey, pig, or cow. Read More >

‘Superbug’ Transfer: The Jump From Humans, to Animals, and Back

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus

News media outlets throughout the nation were abuzz last week with the report of new scientific research showing, for the first time, how a strain of infectious Staph began life in humans, then spread to livestock where it became MRSA, and then jumped back to humans. The study was published Tuesday in the online journal mBio.

National Public Radio’s popular blog, The Salt, noted in its lead story Tuesday, that “Researchers have nailed down something scientists, government officials and agribusiness proponents have argued about for years: whether antibiotics in livestock feed give rise to antibiotic-resistant germs that can threaten humans.”

“Finally, a smoking gun connecting livestock antibiotics and superbugs,” said a headline in the online environmental publication Grist, written by contributing writer Tom Laskawy. As one who has covered the topic for years, Laskawy was not understating the importance of the research. Read More >

Hey, USDA, Who’s Your Daddy?

For whom does the USDA work? A recent development involving a vanished technical review makes me wonder if the agency is working to assure a safe and nutritious food supply for the U.S. citizenry, or to protect the profits of the agro-industrial complex.

Tom Philpott did a great job covering the turn of events in a Mother Jones article published on Friday. In a nutshell, the USDA asked Vaishali Dharmarha, a Food Safety Information Specialist at U.S. Department of Agriculture/University of Maryland, to summarize recent academic findings on the link between antibiotic resistant bacterial infections (such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA) and industrial farm animal production.  The agency blessed the report, which summarized research from 63 academic papers, as peer-reviewed, scientific, and scholarly. And then they quashed it.

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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 >

Study on Drug-Resistant Staph and Store-Bought Meat: What Most News Reports Are Missing

Staphylococcus aureus, Image Courtesy: CDC

Staphylococcus aureus, Image Courtesy: CDC

According to a recently published nationwide study of grocery store meats, the next time you handle a piece of meat or poultry bought at your local supermarket there is nearly a 50 percent chance that it will be carrying drug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (Staph). The Translational Genomics Research Institute study determined that the majority of those bacteria are likely resistant to several classes of antibiotics. Antibiotic-resistant strains of Staph are to blame for a host of illnesses, ranging from simple skin infections to life-threatening diseases, such as pneumonia and sepsis. Staph infects an estimated 500,000 patients in U.S. hospitals annually and more deathsdeaths are blamed on Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)infections every year than HIV/AIDS. Infectious disease experts warn the consequences of rendering antibiotics useless would be disastrous to modern medicine, which depends on antibiotics for everything from organ transplant surgeries and cancer therapies to the care of patients with trauma or battlefield injuries.

The frequency of detection of resistant bacteria on meat purchased in grocery stores is alarming.  Despite this, most of the news coverage we’ve seen this week misses a key message that can be gleaned from the conclusions of the study. The study does not point directly to new or heightened food-safety risks to the consumer, rather, it serves as verification that one of human medicine’s strongest safeguards against disease is quickly losing its efficacy, in part due to inappropriate use of antibiotics in the industrial food animal production system. 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 >

Antibiotic Resistance in Food Animals: FDA Takes Strong Stance, But Public Health May Remain At Risk Until Congress Acts

cattle-grazing-usda-copyLeadership at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made it abundantly clear last week that the low-dose usage of antibiotics in food animals, simply to promote growth or improve feed efficiency, needlessly contributes to the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria and poses a serious threat to public health. Despite the fact that the FDA is taking a hard-line stance on the issue, I find it frustrating to see that the agency appears to be hamstrung from taking the necessary steps to mandate industry end the risky practice. Even more exasperating is that it appears that the FDA may actually relax a current directive that already regulates antibiotic use. However, unlike many critics, I don’t believe that this is an example of the Obama administration buckling under industry pressure. Rather, I view it as a loud and stern call for Congress to take action. Producers concerned more about profit than protecting public health are not going to cut their dependence on non-therapeutic antibiotic use in food animals unless lawmakers pass strict legislation.

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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.

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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 >