"Like many stories on this issue, it was rather short on facts and science and long on speculation," says Richard Carnevale, DVM, and vice president of the Animal Health Institute, about this week's CBS Evening News report on antibiotic use in animal agriculture and potential antibiotic resistance.
"Bacteria do not fly through the air and cause human infection, despite what the PEW spokesperson claimed in the story," he adds. "And, antibiotics are not simply used to produce cheap meat; they are used with at-risk animals to prevent disease, which is far more humane than waiting for them to get sick."
Among the plethora of misleading information was the failure to illustrate that all antibiotics used in animal agriculture are approved by the Food and Drug Administration and that the potential for residues and bacterial resistance are monitored and measured repeatedly throughout the food production and processing chain. "FDA has a very rigorous approval process," Carnevale says, and all of the products "are subject to follow-up surveillance to assure they're being used properly. The agency operates under a strict risk-assessment paradigm." As a matter of fact, FDA is the lead entity of international risk-assessment guidelines.
The CBS story failed to put into perspective the actual risk to consumers from resistant bacteria, he contends. "The CBS story focused on MRSA, which is a problem in humans, but failed to note that MRSA found in animals is not the same strain responsible for human infections," Carnevale notes. In fact last year, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention sent a letter to Congress stating that food animals have not been identified as risk factors and that MRSA is not acquired through eating or handling meat. More specifically, CDC’s surveillance division reports that of the 10,000 MRSA investigated cases, none have been associated with animals.
In the past 20 years, there have been no new antibiotics approved for use in animal feed, and none of the "newer" antibiotics that are used in human medicine are used in animal feed, Carnevale emphasizes.
Actual use of antibiotics within U.S. hog operations occurs in consultation with veterinarians, says Liz Wagstrom, the National Pork Board's assistant vice president of science and technology. "Pork producers strategically use antibiotics at a time in a pig's life when they may be at risk or exposed to disease challenges," she says. Such an example would be the just-weaned pig (typically 18 to 24 days old), which is making a transition from the sow, and her protective colostrum, to a peer-group environment.
She notes that pork producers have had a program in place-- Pork Quality Assurance-- since 1989, which at first focused on the responsible use of antibiotics and avoiding any potential residues. Continuous transitions through the years have created other programs such as "Take Care: Use Antibiotics Responsibly" and the PQA Plus programs. "At this time, we have an on-farm assessment that producers go through, that requires them to show that they have a veterinary-client-patient relationship, that a veterinarian is involved with decisions to use antimicrobials and that the producers use proper records," says Wagstrom.
Concerning real-world antibiotic use, she points to USDA's National Animal Health Monitoring Survey, a statistical sample of U.S. farmers who participate and report a variety of animal health and production statistics. "Less than one-half of the farmers said they used any growth promotion products, and if they did use them, they did so only about half of the time," Wagstrom notes. Contrast that to the oft-quoted Union of Concerned Scientists figures, which contend that U.S. pork producers use 2.3 antibiotics per hog marketed every day for 160 days. "It's just beyond ridiculous," she adds.
According to FDA monitoring and other data, "antibiotic resistance is not only not increasing, but declining over the last several years due to the progressive actions of the industry," she adds.
The risk to human health from antibiotic use in animals is small, and those who are concerned about a potential link are only looking at one piece in the causal chain instead of the many steps involved monitoring the process and protecting food between the farm and fork, noted Scott Hurd, DVM, senior epidemiologist at Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, and former USDA Under Secretary of Food Safety. "You are more likely to die from a bee sting than you are to get a few extra days of illness because of the use of these products (antimicrobials) on the farm," he says. "The problem is if we ban all these antibiotics, there's not going to be any improvement in animal health." Or improvements in human health for that matter.
In his research, and through a modeling the likely outcome, Hurd has found that the pathogen load increases on the animals going to market and "you end up with more human illness days when you ban antibiotics."
Part-two of the CBS report looked at an antibiotic ban in Denmark, with CBS News anchor, Katie Couric, stating that "after the ban in Denmark, studies show removing antibiotics from farms drastically reduced antibiotic resistant bacteria in animals and food."
However, that's not what these U.S. experts have discovered in they're research and trips to Denmark. "When Denmark initiated its ban (1998), the stated purpose was to improve human health and reduce problems with human bacteria resistance," notes Carnevale. "They aren't singing that song anymore; they readily admit that they can't document that there's been a change in public health. The best they can document is that they've reduced (total antibiotic) usage overall, and reduced some resistance in come bacterial species."
As for true antibiotic use on farms there, Wagstrom points to the last DanMap report, which is the official Danish government report, which shows that antibiotic use has increased 110 percent since 1998. Meanwhile pork production increased only 32 percent. "So they've seen a large increase in antibiotics used for therapeutic purposes," she notes. While those antibiotics are not fed to animals, they are delivered through the water or via injection. As another significant occurrence, Danish producers have shifted from "old" or what World Health Organization considers unimportant antibiotics, and moved to "new" or antibiotics ranked as "critically or highly important to human health."
In her report, Couric emphasized that an antibiotic ban comes at a meager price. But according to Iowa State University calculations, the expected cost for U.S. pork producers would be an estimated $6 per every hog marketed on an on-going basis. "That's not a one-time cost," Wagstrom says.
For a production sector that has lost $10 to $20 per hog for more than 24 months, the impact would be huge, and would cause many producers to go out of business. In fact, future projections are for U.S. pork producers to face increasingly small profit margins, often not even approaching $6 per head.
"When we were in Denmark in September (2009), the Danish pork producers association gave a presentation and they felt strongly that consolidation of their industry had been accelerated by the (antibiotics) ban," Wagstrom says, "and that the small producers were perhaps less able to make the changes required."
"You have to wonder why they put their (pork) industry through all of this if there was nothing to be gained other than some relatively minor achievements in antibiotic usage," says Carnevale.