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.
- 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 >
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.
Central 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.
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.”
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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 >
Leadership 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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Watch CBS News Videos OnlineIn the first installment of a two-part series, CBS Evening News Anchor Katie Couric investigates the connection between the use of antibiotics in factory farms and the incidence of MRSA in humans. Couric talks to a worker at an Arkansas poultry processing facility who developed MRSA; discusses the use overuse of antibiotics on the farm with Shelley Hearne, managing director of the Pew Health Group at The Pew Charitable Trusts; and tells viewers about a University of Iowa study, which found a new strain of MRSA — in nearly three-quarters of hogs (70%), and nearly two-thirds of the workers (64%) — on several farms in Iowa and Western Illinois. All of them use antibiotics, routinely. On antibiotic-free farms no MRSA was found. Couric also talks with Iowa hog farmer Dave Kronlage who admits he uses antibiotics to accelerate growth and fend off disease. The CBS web site contains the expected statements from the National Pork Producers Council, the National Pork Board, and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Tomorrow night CBS Evening News will feature part two of the series, which focuses on Denmark’s ban on antibiotic use.
by Amy Peterson, DVM, and Meghan Davis, DVM, MPH
In a Sept. 29th prepared floor statement, Senator Chuck Grassley spoke in response to an August 21st Time magazine article by Bryan Walsh. An important point raised by Mr. Walsh concerned the non-therapeutic use of antimicrobials in food animals and the impact of use of antimicrobials on the emergence of drug-resistant strains of bacteria. The PEW commission report on industrial food animal production (IFAP) cites several studies supporting a connection between the use of antimicrobials and development of drug resistance in both pathogenic (disease-causing) and non-pathogenic bacteria on and around industrial animal farms. A major component of Senator Grassley argument is captured in his quote of a response to the PEW report released by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) on August 17th. The response states that “[a] scientific human/animal nexus, connecting antimicrobial treatments in animals with foodborne or environmentally-contracted human disease, has not been proven.” Read More >
The American Veterinary Medical Association’s recent “response” to the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production’s final report on the state of industrial animal agriculture is disconcerting. It appears that leadership of the veterinary professional organization is attempting to misuse science to obfuscate and delay critically needed changes in the food animal production system rather than tackling very real public health and environmental threats head on.
PCIFAP public meeting in North Carolina, 4/10/07
For years a groundswell had been building from a widespread group of experts and advocates in the areas of public health, environment, social justice, and animal welfare sounding the alarms about the serious problems industrial food animal production poses. But until the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) decided to take on the politically controversial issue, there had never been a comprehensive examination of industry’s practices by such a respected and diverse panel of experts. Following a grueling 2½ -year discovery process, and despite several overt attempts by industry to discredit it, the Commission concluded that the scientific evidence was too strong and the public health risk too great to ignore and offered a series of consensus recommendations on how to repair our unsafe food animal production system.
The tone and timing of the AVMA’s 38-page response to the PCIFAP final report, 15 months after it was released, is quite telling. The document’s executive summary starts out by suggesting that the PCIFAP’s technical reports (published separately) were “biased,” and that, “the Pew report contains significant flaws and major deviations from both science and reality.” Another telling facet is that the “response” contains very little scientific citation to backup its rebuttal. It’s not a coincidence that this response coincides with the recent revelation that the Obama Administration supports the idea of banning the use of key antibiotics as growth promoters in food animals, which happens to be one of the PCIFAP’s key recommendations. Not to mention, this year’s version of the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) appears to have a much better chance of passing than in any prior year.
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I’m heartened to learn that the “meatless Monday” concept has taken hold globally. It is welcome news that former Beatles mega-star Paul McCartney and his daughters launched a new Meat Free Monday campaign in the United Kingdom, just weeks after Belgium’s city of Ghent enacted its own “Veggie Day.” I praise Sir Paul and the city of Ghent for publicly recognizing the health and environmental benefits of reducing the demand for meat worldwide.
For the past seven years, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Center for a Livable Future have embraced the nationwide “Meatless Monday” program. The campaign’s goal is to reduce the negative health and environmental impacts of industrially produced meat. The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, a project of the Bloomberg School of Public Health and Pew Charitable Trusts, found that the current industrial system of producing food animals too often poses unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and the welfare of the animals themselves and that significant changes must be implemented now. Reducing the amount of meat we eat is a good first step. Read More >
An interesting article by Associate Editor Dale Keiger in the latest issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine explores the links between industrial farming and antibiotic-resistant pathogens. It covers researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who are investigating the use of antibiotics in factory farming, which cultivates more than poultry and livestock. Support for the continuing research comes from the School’s Center for a Livable Future.
The lengthy and well-researched article provides a comprehensive look into the complex issue of antibiotic resistance and other dangers posed by Concentrated Animal Feeding Opeations (CAFOs). In the article, Kellogg Schwab, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Water and Health, says of a typical pig farm manure lagoon he sampled: “There were 10 million E. coli per liter [of sampled waste]. Ten million. And you have a hundred million liters in some of those pits. So you can have trillions of bacteria present, of which 89 percent are resistant to drugs. That’s a massive amount that in a rain event can contaminate the environment.” He adds, “This development of drug resistance scares the hell out of me. If we continue on and we lose the ability to fight these microorganisms, a robust, healthy individual has a chance of dying, where before we would be able to prevent that death.” Schwab says that if he tried, he could not build a better incubator of resistant pathogens than a factory farm. He, Ellen Silbergeld, professor of environment health, and others assert that the level of danger has yet to be widely acknowledged. Says Schwab, “It’s not appreciated until it’s your mother, or your son, or you trying to fight off an infection that will not go away because the last mechanism to fight it has been usurped by someone putting it into a pig or a chicken.” The complete cover story “Farmacology” is available here. Additional information on the use of antibiotics in animals can be found in the report, “Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America,” a project of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“We put faith in our government to protect us, and we’re not being protected at the most basic level,” strong words from a mother whose two-and-a-half-year-old son died just days after eating a hamburger tainted with E. coli O157:H7. Barbara Kowalcyk’s personal fight to ensure that the food we feed our children will not endanger their health or their lives, was just one of the many powerful stories told in the soon to be released documentary Food Inc. The hard-hitting film takes a critical look at the industrial food production system and the many risks it poses on society from public health threats and environmental degradation to social injustice.
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