“Tainted meats point to superbug Clostridium difficile in food”

“Bacteria in Pork Showing Resistance to Antibiotics”

“Tests find drug-resistant bacteria in store-bought pork”

Contrary to headlines that sometimes border on sensational, the U.S. pork industry continues to produce the safest, most nutritious and wholesome product in the world.

The trouble is that the hype of such headlines is causing, or soon will cause, pork producers problems. It could come in the form of legislation to limit animal-health product use in livestock. With Democrats now leading the White House and Congress — and public-health organizations pushing hard — such proposals are more likely to move further than they have in the past. 

Two recent “scares” undoubtedly have prompted congressional hand wringing about antibiotic use in animal agriculture. In late 2007 and in 2008, several news reports touted the deaths of otherwise healthy individuals from methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. MRSA is a type of Staphylococcus aureus, a common bacterium found throughout the environment. More than 30 percent of the population carry it in their nasal passages and on their skin. MRSA, which is resistant to certain antibiotics, also has been found on cats, dogs, horses, marine mammals, turtles, rabbits, a variety of food animals and poultry

Most people who have MRSA do not become sick from it and are never aware that they carry it. Most MRSA infections are acquired in health-care facilities, but so-called community-associated cases have been on the rise.

More recently, news stories have reported growing numbers of people with Clostridium difficile, another bacterium commonly associated with health-care settings but now surfacing in people with no history of antimicrobial use or  a prolonged hospital stay. Like MRSA, Clostridium difficile is present in healthy people (up to 15 percent of the population) as well as in dogs, horses, calves, chickens and pigs.

Critics of modern food-animal agriculture, including the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, have tried to link increases of antibiotic-resistant diseases, such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile, to livestock and poultry production methods. They claim that animals carry disease bacteria, that their meat contains it, that antibiotics the animals receive are contributing to drug resistance in humans, or all three. They want changes in how food animals are raised as well as limits or bans on antibiotic use in animal agriculture.

The Pew Commission, for example, has called for a ban on antimicrobials for “non-therapeutic” use in livestock and poultry. Denmark adopted such a ban for pork production in the late 1990s. According to the proponents, it resulted in dramatic reductions in antibiotics used and improved the protection of public health.

But, while overall antibiotic use in the Danish pork industry declined, therapeutic antibiotic use  — used for disease treatment, prevention and control — more than doubled. Additionally, Danish pork producers saw an increase in post-weaning diarrhea as well as baby pig mortality. The Danes also saw an increase in human Salmonella infections that were resistant to the antibiotic tetracycline, probably due to an increase in tetracycline use in pigs to combat diarrhea.

Denmark’s prohibition was on sub-therapeutic antibiotics or antibiotic growth promoters, which have been criticized in this country. Testifying before Congress on behalf of the Pew Commission, Jay Graham, a research fellow with the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health (which funded the commission), stated that “most antimicrobials in the United States… are used as ‘growth promoters’ in food-animal production…”

But that’s not true. Antibiotic growth promoters represent only 4.6 percent of all antibiotics given to animals.

The Danish experience illustrates that if an antibiotics ban were put in place in the United States, pig health and well-being would decline, and that would cost the U.S. pork industry considerably. Iowa State University economists estimate (using corn at $2.50 a bushel) that a ban on sub-therapeutic antibiotics would cost the industry more than $700 million over 10 years.

There’s also evidence that not only does responsible antibiotic use in pork production protect animal health and well-being, but it may actually protect public health. A study by Scott Hurd, DVM, with Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, demonstrated that pigs that have been sick tend to have a greater presence of food-safety pathogens on their carcasses. A multi-university study found that “antibiotic-free” pigs have a higher incidence of zoonotic diseases and parasites than those that receive antibiotics.

While there is little information to make pigs or other food animals the culprits in increasing antibiotic-resistant diseases in humans, the pork industry isn’t taking the antibiotic-resistance issue lightly. Its Pork Quality Assurance Plus program includes guidelines for using antibiotics in pigs, and its Take Care-Use Antibiotics Responsibly program educates producers on using antibiotics judiciously. The National Pork Board also contributed more than $200,000 to study MRSA and pigs.

For its part, the National Pork Producers Council will be educating lawmakers, including 10 new U.S. senators and 30 new U.S. House members, about antibiotic use in livestock and beating back efforts to remove these important animal-health tools.

There is no doubt that human resistance to antibiotics is growing. However, what is in doubt is any connection to livestock and poultry antibiotic use. In fact, the Institute of Food Technologists says that correlating the risk of antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic resistance in humans is not possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has said that if animal-to-human transmission of bacteria such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile is occurring, it’s responsible for a very small percentage of all human infections.

The more likely source for the rising number of diseases resistant to antibiotics is human. Doctors prescribing drugs for even the mildest symptoms and people running for the antibacterial soap every time they touch a door knob are preventing individuals from building immunity to germs and creating bacteria that are resistant to the very thing that is supposed to kill them. Whatever happened to mom’s old adage that a little dirt is good for you?

Blaming pigs and other food animals for antibiotic resistance is misguided.