Antibiotics are routinely given to livestock on factory farms to make them gain weight with less feed and keep them from getting sick in confinement conditions. But the daily dosing, at the same time it lowers feed needs, lowers drug effectiveness and produces antibiotic resistant bacteria or super bugs that can be deadly to people.
In January, researchers found 230 out of 395 pork cuts bought in US stores were contaminated with a super bug called MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). Worse there were no statistically significant differences between conventionally raised swine and swine raised without antibiotics, reported the researchers.
Why would meat labeled raised without antibiotics be as full of super bugs as conventional and factory farmed meat?
It can be contaminated with MRSA at the farm, by slaughterhouse workers who carry MRSA or by other meat, if processing equipment is not cleaned out between runs of certified organic and non-certified organic meats, say the researchers.
A 2009 study of swine workers in Iowa and Illinois found that almost half carried MRSA.
In December, the FDA scrapped its three-decade-long effort to regulate the use of the popular human antibiotics penicillin and tetracycline in livestock. While the FDA says in the announcement that it remains concerned about the issue of antimicrobial resistance, it also says contested, formal withdrawal proceedings consume too much of its time and money. For example, withdrawing nitrofurans from livestock use took 20 years, DES (diethylstilbestrol) took seven years and enrofloxacin took five years and cost $3.3 million, says the agency. Hey, were just the government that makes the laws and enforces them. Theyre Big Meat.
Cynics might have seen the concession to Big Meat coming when a report from a USDA-contracted researcher that asserted that MRSA kills more Americans per year than AIDS disappeared from the National Agricultural Library Web site last summer with no explanation, says reporter Tom Philpott. Of course, MRSA is only one antibiotic-resistant germ and not even the one clinicians fear the most anymore. Clinicians also worry about vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE), encouraged by the use of the antibiotic virginiamycin in livestock; Clostridium difficile, a serious intestinal bug developing resistance; and resistant Acinetobacter baumannii which has so afflicted US troops in Iraq it has been dubbed Iraqibacter.
And days after the penicillin announcement, there was another concession. The FDA issued new, watered down rules on the use of cephalosporins in livestock (a different type of antibiotic) after Big Meat muscled down the FDAs original order to prohibit cephalosporins in 2008 (which also disappeared with little explanation). Cephalosporins are antibiotics like Cefzil and Keflex used for pneumonia, strep throat, salmonella and skin and urinary tract infections in humans and one type of antibiotic that Clostridium difficile is developing tolerance to. Over a million human salmonella infections occur in the US every year, resulting in 16,000 people being hospitalized and nearly 600 deaths, reported the Harford Advocate.
In 2008, the FDA announced that there was evidence that extralabel use of these drugs [cephalosporins] in food-producing animals will likely cause an adverse event in humans and, as such, presents a risk to the public health, and called for their prohibition. Notice the FDA says will likely cause not could likely cause and presents a risk not could present a risk?
But by the time hearings were held two months later and lobbyists had worked their magic, the Cephalosporin Order of Prohibition, had somehow become a Hearing to Review the Advances in Animal Health Within the Livestock Industry. Prohibition advances, same idea, right?
At the hearings, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the Animal Health Institute, a Big Pharma trade group and the egg, chicken, turkey, milk, pork and cattle industries whined that they could not farm without antibiotics because more feed would be required and the animals would get sick from being immobilized over their own manure.
To raise turkeys without antibiotics would increase the incidence of illness in turkey flocks, sniveled the National Turkey Federations Michael Rybolt. Antibiotics reduce the level of potentially harmful bacteria which result in infections and sickness, contended the National Milk Producers Federation Robert D. Byrne (key word, potential). Antibiotics decrease the amount of land needed to raise animals and provide a lower-priced wholesome product for the public, said one farm operator after another. One even claimed that manure is reduced because animals eat less. In their twisted thinking that would make factory farming green.
While most ag reps at the hearings defended the use of antibiotics for treatment, prevention and control of disease, the AVMAs Christine Hoang actually went so far as to call the less feed that antibiotics make possible a health-promoting effect and a therapeutic use. Maybe she meant health and therapy for the bottom line.
After the hearings, W. Ron DeHaven, who was the USDAs top vet before leaving for industry and helming the AVMA, penned a rambling, almost incoherent 18-page letter with 62 footnotes to the FDA.
Cephalosporin resistant human pathogens arent increasing, says the letter, and even if they are, theyre not affecting human health and even theyre affecting human health, how do you know its from the livestock drugs and even if its from the livestock drugs, the FDA has no legal authority to ban cephalosporin.
Alternately maudlin and accusatory, the letter plays on terrorism fears by calling a cephalosporin ban a food security issue affecting the number of animals available for the food supply. It also plays on humanitarian sentiments by claiming a ban would impede veterinarians ability to relieve the pain and suffering of animals as if cephalosporins are painkillers and other drugs arent available. (And as if antibiotics are given for animals welfare instead of revenue welfare.) Nowhere in the letter is mention of the reason Big Meat wont let go of antibiotics: The industry is able to raise thousands of animals in crowded conditions that would otherwise kill them for prices as artificial as the drugs they are raised on.
Big Pharmas invasion into farming is probably the biggest reason for the demise of family farms which are no longer able to compete in price. But less than a month after the letter was sent, on Nov. 25, the FDA quietly revoked the prohibition.
Of course, the revolving door between government/Big Pharma lobbying has a distinguished tradition from Louisiana representative-turned-lobbyist, Billy Tauzin, who presided over the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) until 2010, to former CDC Director Julie Gerberding, who presided over the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak and turned up as anybody? head of Merck vaccines when she left the government.
It was not a great surprise that the FDAs new cephalosporin livestock rules, four years later, had the Agribusiness Seal of Approval.
The new rules, which no longer ban cephalosporins, limit large and lengthy dosing in cattle and swine, says the New York Times, but allow uses the F.D.A. has not specifically approved, and wide use in ducks and rabbits.
Still, the new rules prohibit one unsavory factory farming practice that few are aware ofthe routine injections of cephalosporins into chicken eggs.
In 2008, while inspecting egg operations, the FDA caught hatcheries injecting cephalosporins directly into chicken eggs, rather than by the approved method of administering the drug to day-old chicks.
The same year, Tyson Foods was caught injecting eggs with a different antibiotic, the human antibiotic gentamicin, linked to serious side effects.
Tyson especially had egg on its face, because the previous year the government disallowed its slogan Raised Without Antibiotics, because the ionophores it adds to poultry feed are antibiotics. Ionophores are antibiotics added to poultry and cattle feed for the same feed efficiency as produced with other antibiotics but they are not used in humans.
Tyson had just backpedaled into the new phrase, Raised Without Antibiotics That Impact Antibiotic Resistance In Humans, when it was caught playing fast and loose with gentamicin.
The abuse of antibiotics on farms was one of the late Sen. Ted Kennedys last stands. It seems scarcely believable that these precious medications could be fed by the ton to chickens and pigs, he wrote in a bill called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2007 (PAMTA), which has yet to pass.
These precious drugs arent even used to treat sick animals. They are used to fatten pigs and speed the growth of chickens. The result of this rampant overuse is clear: meat contaminated with drug-resistant bacteria sits on supermarket shelves all over America, said Kennedy years before this months report on MRSA-contaminated pork. The meat industry, is rampantly misusing antibiotics in an attempt to cover up filthy, unsanitary living conditions among animals, echoed Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., who cosponsored the bill and holds degrees in microbiology and public health.
Over 70% of antibiotics go to livestock, not people, says the bill and they are used on over 83% of grower-finisher swine farms, cattle feedlots, and sheep farms and found in 48% of US streams.
Of course, its no surprise that Big Meat denies the dangers of antibiotic resistance and/or its part in it and opposes PAMTA. We dont believe we are the main cause of antibiotic resistance, Dave Warner, the National Pork Producers Councils communications director told Johns Hopkins Magazine. Doctors who overprescribe antibiotics are the culprit, claims Warner, since There are only 67,000 pork producers. Only?
The chicken industry also pleads innocent. We believe our use is responsible and limited, Richard Lobb, public relations director for the National Chicken Council, told the Hartford Advocate.
What is a surprise is that Big Pharma, supposed medical professionals, is also flat earth when it comes to antibiotic resistance. Elanco, the animal division of Eli Lilly, says that, Monitoring antibiotic resistance in raw meat products is not an appropriate measure to represent the bacteria that reach the consumer, in an online brochure, because cooking destroys these bacteria, and dead bacteria cannot transmit antibiotic resistance.
The Animal Health Institute says, There is no scientific evidence that antibiotics used in food animals have any significant impact on the effectiveness of antibiotics in people, it deadpans in a brochure created specifically to oppose PAMTA. People would be more likely to die from a bee sting than for their antibiotic treatment to fail because of resistant bacteria in meat or poultry.
At the heart of this discussion is the premise that the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture directly contributes to bacterial resistance in humans, says the vet group, urging its members to fight PAMTA. A livestock antibiotic ban in Denmark has not shown any clear declines in antibiotic resistance patterns in humans, says AVMA, though CBS News and Food Safety News find otherwise.
Antibiotic resistant intestinal infections increased in Europe after certain antibiotics were introduced on farms, reported CBS. But after Denmark declared a ban, it drastically reduced antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals and food.
Denmarks Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries reported that the ban resulted in overall reductions of antimicrobial resistance countrywide, said Food Safety News. Nor is AVMA the only veterinary group that sides with industry over animals. The American Association of Swine Veterinarians was one of the groups filing a friend-of-the-court brief supporting this weeks Supreme Court ruling, National Meat Association v. Harris, that overturned Californias humane slaughter law.
The law was enacted after the 2008 Westland/Hallmark school lunch meat scandal in which cows too sick and weak to walk were videotaped forklifted and water-boarded to the slaughter line. The humane slaughter law prohibits buying, selling or receiving downer animals and processing, butchering or selling them for human consumption.
It requires non-ambulatory animals to be immediately euthanized. Big Meat and its veterinarians argued the California law criminalizes the work of federal slaughterhouse inspectors who are presumably preventing slaughterhouse atrocities without the California laws help.
But former USDA inspectors Lester Friedlander, DVM and Dean Wyatt, DVM have testified that federal inspection is a mockery that puts the public at risk at the same time it permits appalling animal abuse. In fact, antibiotics form such a huge part of Big Pharma revenues, antibiotic resistance literally divides medical professionals along species lines.
Many medical groups, including the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association, support PAMTA out of concern for patient infections while big veterinary groups tend to oppose it.
At first it looked like PAMTA might have a friend in the FDAs newly appointed deputy commissioner, Joshua Sharfstein, who was a pediatrician and the former food safety staffer for Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. Both he and the newly appointed FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, had public health backgrounds and were not industry insiders.
At a 2009 House Rules Committee meeting, Sharfstein surprised lawmakers by indicating that the FDA supported PAMTA. The ag lobby was enraged because Sharfsteins remarks implied White House Office of Management and Budget approval, yet there had been no briefing.
You deliberately tried to blindside some of us on this committee, and we dont appreciate that, barked Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, former House agriculture subcommittee on livestock chairman, to Michael Taylor, FDA senior adviser on food safety (considered a friend of agribusiness, until the Sharfstein remarks).
But by early 2011, Kennedy had died, Sharfstein had left the FDA abruptly and without comment, and Big Meat had already showed lawmakers where they could put their cephalosporin ban.
So its no surprise that in 2012, the FDA is waving through major livestock antibiotics, attaching Mickey Mouse restrictions on others, and US meat is full of super bugs even meat labeled raised without antibiotics.
Martha Rosenberg frequently writes about the impact of the pharmaceutical, food and gun industries on public health. This article originally appeared on AlterNet and Salon.com.
From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2012
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