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Speaking With … Dr. David Wallinga

Just before the holidays, the FDA withdrew two 34 year-old proposals to limit the use of two non-therapeutic antibiotics (penicillin and tetracycline) in cattle feed, opting instead to recommend voluntary withdrawal.  This is particularly outrageous in light of the dozens of countries that have instituted these bans successfully.

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Upon hearing this latest bit of news, I got in touch with Dr. David Wallinga, a renowned expert in the link between the ubiquity of antibiotics in animal feed and increased human resistance to these drugs. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Wallinga at the American Dietetic Association annual conference this past October, where he was part of a point-counterpoint panel on that very issue.

I wanted to get his thoughts on the FDA decision, as well as on the public health threats posed by antibiotics in cattle feed. His responses below:

As someone whose work focuses on issues of antibiotic use in animal feed, how surprised — if at all — were you by the FDA’s decision …  to withdraw their proposals to limit the use of non-therapeutic penicillin and tetracycline, and instead rely on voluntary guidelines to industry?

I was not very surprised. For some time, both privately and publicly, the FDA has admitted that they consider it too hard to act proactively on their congressional mandate to protect public health. Instead, their chosen path time and again has been to ask the regulated industries to voluntarily act, which of course they have every incentive – financial and otherwise – to not do.

The FDA first went on record with concerns about a possible link between antibiotics in animal feed and human antibiotic resistance in 1977.  Why has there been such little action since?

The FDA proposal in 1977 was not acted upon because Congress shut the FDA down. It’s fair to say that FDA has acted afraid of its own shadow ever since. It certainly doesn’t help that the FDA relies upon the industries that it is supposed to regulate for much of the budget that it relies upon to pay staff and to operate. Could one design a regulatory agency more emasculated or incapable of protecting the public? I think you would be hard pressed.

What do you consider to be the most flawed arguments in favor of administering antibiotics in cattle feed?

Just about all of them, based upon what every microbiologist knows about bacteria and their tendency to get more resistant the more exposed they are to antibiotics. The industry arguments really haven’t a leg to stand on, no matter how much they protest to the contrary.

(Note: One statement Dr. Wallinga made at the point-counterpoint panel that has stuck with me: antibiotics for animal feed were approved decades ago, when their impact on human gut flora wasn’t a requirement for approval. The public health community has since pointed out some troubling implications).

For those who may not be aware, can you provide an overview of the link between antibiotics in animal feed and “superbugs”?  Also, given the recent FDA decision, how much worse do you think this situation can get?

Well to answer the latter question first, it can get worse by more people dying of resistant infections even more quickly. We know that is already happening, and the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture has speeded that process. But deaths and expensive illness from resistant infections are likely to get much worse before — or if — they get better.The linkages between use and resistant infections goes something like this:

– Antibiotic use drives resistance.

– 80% of antibiotic use occurs in agriculture; about three-quarters of this use is thought to be via the addition of antibiotics to animal feed for animals that aren’t yet sick.

– Over half the latter is thought to be in the form of antibiotics that are “medically important” meaning they are identical or nearly so to drugs also used in human medicine — meaning, classes of antibiotics like penicillins and tetracyclines.

– Over time, superbugs have gotten more lethal because they are not only getting resistant to more drugs, but also that resistance is physically linked. That means smart superbugs can “teach” other bugs to be resistant to multiple drugs very quickly by transfering the genes or gene-based information that makes them multidrug resistant in one fell swoop. Because of the huge use of antibiotics in farm environments, we are creating reservoirs of these superresistant bugs around farms, among farmworkers and in the food supply. The creation and rapid spread of more lethal and more resistant strains of superbugs is accelerating far, far quicker than the almost non-existent creation of novel new antibiotics. This is a recipe for disaster as doctors are literally running out of antibiotics to try and use in patients infected with harder and harder-to-treat bacteria.

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Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, is a Seattle-based dietitian who approaches nutrition from a whole-foods, plant-centric framework. He also takes a strong interest in food politics, nutrition policy, and deceptive food industry marketing tactics. A version of “Speaking With … Dr. David Wallinga” was first posted Dec. 28 on his website, small bites.

David Wallinga, M.D., M.P.A., is Senior Advisor in Science, Food and Health, at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

© Food Safety News
  • doc raymond

    Andy, I quit prescribing medicines many years ago, and way back then the only use we had for tetracycline was as a second choice antibiotid to treat acne. Penicillin G was used almost exclusively for strep throat–and still is.
    Penicillin was discovered in the 1940s and within ten years staph was 50% resistant to it. and it was not used in animals. Get a grip on reality here and take a look at the use and abuse of antibiotics in human medicine.

  • Articles quoting advocates of using current levels of antibiotics in livestock regularly state that placing antibiotics in feed will PREVENT animals from getting sick. That’s a laudable goal.
    Andy, how do you respond to this claim?
    Also, if the current level of antibiotics were reduced, and a sizeable increase in animal sicknesses would occur, HSUS and PETA would have a field day, enabling them to criticize the meat industry for treating animals inhumanely.
    John Munsell

  • Doc Raymond,
    I don’t have a problem exchanging ideas with someone on the opposite side of the spectrum, but I don’t appreciate comments like “get a grip on reality”, which are unnecessary attacks that don’t add anything to the discussion.
    The public health concerns surrounding subtherapeutic dosages of antibiotics in animal feed have been well-documented in several reputable publications for years now, so I’m not sure what your comment refers to. This is not a theory I or Dr. Wallinga came up with two weeks ago. There are many academic papers, Senate hearings, and opinions from microbiological experts on this issue.
    In terms of your penicillin example, the fact that pathogens developed resistance to a drug that was not fed to animals doesn’t mean that feeding antibiotics to animals isn’t problematic.
    Coincidentally, the FDA restricted some other antibiotics in cattle feed today: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/05/health/policy/fda-restricts-use-of-antibiotics-in-livestock.html

  • John,
    I respond to that claim by pointing to Denmark, where antibiotics were restricted and livestock production was not negatively effected. I specifically point you to this article (http://farmprogress.com/story-denmark-antibiotic-ban-has-benefits-0-42824) since it is from an industry-friendly source. I initially wanted to provide a link to a wonderful piece on the issue over at Grist, but figured that would probably get attacked by virtue of being a Grist piece.
    I can’t help but wonder if these advocates you mention who don’t see a need to restrict antibiotics are on industry payroll.
    As for PETA and HSUS having a field day, that is a baseless assumption. Do you think PETA and HSUS prefer that animals live in conditions so deplorable and unhealthy as they do now? Or that they be fed growth hormones and antibiotics? Among the most inhumane things we can do to animals is subject them to living conditions that make them sick.

  • Thanks Andy for your comments. I think we all agree that placing thousands of animals in confined spaces (feedlots, chicken barns) increases their likelihood of sharing sicknesses. A major problem I perceive would occur if we did away with these CAFO’s would be a diminished domestic production or livestock, adversely impacting domestic AG, and increasing our demand for imported protein which in many cases is grown under foreign conditions which I don’t trust. I just don’t think America can produce the same tonnages of protein if all animals were run on grass, we likely wouldn’t have the Choice & Prime beef to which many of us have grown accustomed, and we don’t have vibrant new grass available year-round.
    Because of these problems, CAFO’s have been developed to assure Americans (& packing plants) a dependable year-round supply of tender protein, and at a decent price. An associated price we pay for this convenience is the need to medically treat CAFO animals to prevent potential sicknesses.
    Because the medical profession fed me too many antibiotics for 15 years of sinus infections (until an MD showed me how to utilize naturopathic treatments, at no charge, at home), I’ve become immune to some antibiotics, with limited antibiotic help now available to me. So I certainly don’t want to exacerbate my future health options, so I share your concern about antibiotic resistance.
    I believe I’m correct in saying that I am like countless Americans, who are not yet sold on the theory that placing antibiotics in animal feed increases our antibiotic resistance. My personal antibiotic resistance was damaged by my consuming too many antibiotics designed for HUMANS. If this theory can be scientifically proven beyond any doubt, we will see a watershed change in American purchasing habits.
    Dr. Raymond’s response above has piqued my interest. Could you respond specifically to his comments about Penicillin G and tetracycline? Are the same antibiotics administered to livestock as administered to humans? Please answer in such a way that an ordinary American like me can understand.
    Dr. Raymond brought up abuse of antibiotics in human medicine. Andy, I am appalled at the volumes of antibiotics my young grandchildren have already consumed. They’re getting started in legally-sanctioned antibiotic abuse decades before I did. How in the dickens will they stay healthy when they are my age, realizing their systems are already being abused by a medical system which overly-prescribes antibiotics for comparatively minor sicknesses? Admittedly, I am no expert, but I am more concerned about antibiotic resistance emanating from human consumption of antibiotics than from protein from CAFO animals.
    Am open to any evidence you can provide me.
    John Munsell

  • Articles quoting advocates of using current levels of antibiotics in livestock regularly state that placing antibiotics in feed will PREVENT animals from getting sick. That’s a laudable goal.
    Andy, how do you respond to this claim?
    Also, if the current level of antibiotics were reduced, and a sizeable increase in animal sicknesses would occur, HSUS and PETA would have a field day, enabling them to criticize the meat industry for treating animals inhumanely.
    John Munsell

  • Thanks Andy for your comments. I think we all agree that placing thousands of animals in confined spaces (feedlots, chicken barns) increases their likelihood of sharing sicknesses. A major problem I perceive would occur if we did away with these CAFO’s would be a diminished domestic production or livestock, adversely impacting domestic AG, and increasing our demand for imported protein which in many cases is grown under foreign conditions which I don’t trust. I just don’t think America can produce the same tonnages of protein if all animals were run on grass, we likely wouldn’t have the Choice & Prime beef to which many of us have grown accustomed, and we don’t have vibrant new grass available year-round.
    Because of these problems, CAFO’s have been developed to assure Americans (& packing plants) a dependable year-round supply of tender protein, and at a decent price. An associated price we pay for this convenience is the need to medically treat CAFO animals to prevent potential sicknesses.
    Because the medical profession fed me too many antibiotics for 15 years of sinus infections (until an MD showed me how to utilize naturopathic treatments, at no charge, at home), I’ve become immune to some antibiotics, with limited antibiotic help now available to me. So I certainly don’t want to exacerbate my future health options, so I share your concern about antibiotic resistance.
    I believe I’m correct in saying that I am like countless Americans, who are not yet sold on the theory that placing antibiotics in animal feed increases our antibiotic resistance. My personal antibiotic resistance was damaged by my consuming too many antibiotics designed for HUMANS. If this theory can be scientifically proven beyond any doubt, we will see a watershed change in American purchasing habits.
    Dr. Raymond’s response above has piqued my interest. Could you respond specifically to his comments about Penicillin G and tetracycline? Are the same antibiotics administered to livestock as administered to humans? Please answer in such a way that an ordinary American like me can understand.
    Dr. Raymond brought up abuse of antibiotics in human medicine. Andy, I am appalled at the volumes of antibiotics my young grandchildren have already consumed. They’re getting started in legally-sanctioned antibiotic abuse decades before I did. How in the dickens will they stay healthy when they are my age, realizing their systems are already being abused by a medical system which overly-prescribes antibiotics for comparatively minor sicknesses? Admittedly, I am no expert, but I am more concerned about antibiotic resistance emanating from human consumption of antibiotics than from protein from CAFO animals.
    Am open to any evidence you can provide me.
    John Munsell

  • Dr. Wallinga, excuse me for stating the obvious. It appears that any scientific research findings are automatically dismissed by those who oppose the results. Earlier today, Meatingplace reported on FDA’s proposal to ban cephalosporin drugs in food animals. FDA perceives it has adequate scientific findings to justify the ban, while the animal industry already accuses the ban to NOT be based on legitimate scientific evidence. This constant battle has been repeated many times in the last year. This is old news.
    Is it possible that a scientist can devise research protocol specifically designed to produce a pre-determined result? It seems to me that both sides of this argument are concocting precisely such pseudo-scientific research studies, which totally contradicts findings from the opposition research studies.
    Who are we to believe? This does not bode well for the scientific community.
    John Munsell

  • Dr. Wallinga, excuse me for stating the obvious. It appears that any scientific research findings are automatically dismissed by those who oppose the results. Earlier today, Meatingplace reported on FDA’s proposal to ban cephalosporin drugs in food animals. FDA perceives it has adequate scientific findings to justify the ban, while the animal industry already accuses the ban to NOT be based on legitimate scientific evidence. This constant battle has been repeated many times in the last year. This is old news.
    Is it possible that a scientist can devise research protocol specifically designed to produce a pre-determined result? It seems to me that both sides of this argument are concocting precisely such pseudo-scientific research studies, which totally contradicts findings from the opposition research studies.
    Who are we to believe? This does not bode well for the scientific community.
    John Munsell