Top meat industry groups held briefings on Capitol Hill Tuesday defending the use of antibiotics as a critical tool for animal health.
The briefings come two weeks after CBS Evening News with Katie Couric broadcast a two-part series criticizing the widespread use of antibiotics in food animal production. Those in the meat business have been actively pushing back against the criticism, partly fueled by concern it could build momentum for legislation that would ban the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in animal feed in an effort to curb growing antibiotic resistance.
“Prompt and judicious use of efficacious antibiotics is critical for the successful treatment and, at times, control of specific bacterial diseases in cattle,” said Dr. Guy Loneragan, an epidemiologist and associate professor at West Texas A&M University who presented at the briefings.
“Certain FDA-approved antibiotics also enable us to significantly improve the efficiency of beef production, said Loneragan. “Maintaining access to FDA-approved safe and effective technologies, including animal health products, helps ensure both the health and resource efficiency of U.S. herds and flocks.”
“We use antibiotics judiciously and responsibly to protect the health of our herds and to produce safe pork,” said Craig Rowles, a pork producer and veterinarian. “We know that a ban on antibiotics, like the one in Denmark, will have adverse affects on our pigs, will raise the cost of production, and will not provide a benefit to public health.”
In the CBS series, Dr. Liz Wagstrom, the chief veterinarian for the National Pork board echoed the same concerns. “If we did the same thing in the United States, we would have more sick and dying pigs and none of that would result in a benefit to the U.S. consumer,” Wagstrom told Couric in the interview.
Industry groups say the scientific evidence simply does not show antibiotics on the farm significantly contribute to antibiotic resistance in humans.
In a statement following the briefings, industry groups called the connection nothing more than “unsubstantiated allegations by activist groups.”
Most consumer and public health groups disagree with the industry’s position.
According to to a recent Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production report, “A key contributor to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is the overuse of drugs on industrial farms.”
“Antibiotics important to human health are fed to food animals at low doses, often over long periods of time, creating a breeding ground for new and resistant bacteria and a potentially hazardous workplace,” says the report.
Some experts said the industry briefings were not based on scientific evidence.
“The livestock and poultry industries’ invited speakers relied primarily upon anecdotal recollections of farm life to support their claims of the benefits of antibiotics,” said David Love, PhD, with the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
“Without substantiating these claims with evidence from peer-reviewed research, the briefing provided little value to the antibiotics debate,” added Love, who attended the briefings. “There is a sizable and rapidly expanding scientific literature documenting the relationship between antibiotic use in food animal production, antibiotic-resistant bacteria isolated from farmers, and the downstream presence of multidrug-resistant bacteria in the environment.”
Love also disagreed with the industry’s perception of Denmark’s antibiotics ban. “The writing is on the wall – Denmark is already experiencing public health benefits from banning non-therapeutic antibiotics,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), the only microbiologist serving in Congress, introduced the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act in early 2007 and again last March. The bill would require that the FDA deny any new animal antibiotic drugs unless the federal government is certain the drugs will not contribute to antimicrobial resistance.
The bill would also ban the routine, or nontherapeutic, use of antibiotics in food-producing animals, similar to legislation Denmark enacted for poultry and pork in 1999.
The late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) introduced a similar bill in the Senate last year with 17 cosponsors.
Tuesday’s briefings were hosted by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Chicken Council, the National Producers Council, the National Milk Producers Federaion, as well as the National Turkey Federation and both the American Meat Institute and the National Meat Association.
U.S. Reps. David Scott (D-GA), Randy Neugebauer (R-TX), Zack Space (D-OH) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) and by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) also co-hosted the briefings.
Pew recently hosted a briefing on industrial farming and human health, the presentations are available on Food Safety News.